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A state judge hears arguments over Florida's congressional map

exterior of a court building
Craig Moore
WFSU Public Media
Leon County Circuit Court Judge J. Lee Marsh heard final arguments from attorneys in a case over the state's congressional map on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023.

Attorneys in the case presented arguments for and against maintaining the way U.S. House districts are drawn in North Florida during a hearing in state court on Thursday.

A state judge in Leon County will soon issue a ruling on whether to block Florida’s congressional map after hearing final arguments in the case on Thursday.

Several voting rights groups and voters are suing in state court to have the state's congressional map struck down and replaced with one that restores an African American-performing district in North Florida.

Last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis' office drafted a map that removed the only district in the region where Black voters could elect their candidate of choice. DeSantis then vetoed two bipartisan maps that the legislature passed at the end of the regular session and called state lawmakers back to Tallahassee to pass his map.

Both of the legislature's vetoed maps attempted to keep an African American-performing district in North Florida.

"The legislature was on course to pass a map that was constitutional, and then all of the sudden, the governor vetos, intervenes and presents a map that's 'take it or leave it,'" said Nicholas Warren, an attorney with the ACLU of Florida. "They, of course, did what the governor asked them to do."

The state constitution's Fair Districts Amendments — which were approved by 63% of voters in 2010 — prohibit diminishing a minority group's ability to elect their candidate of choice. While crafting the maps, lawmakers publicly acknowledged that they must keep minority voting districts intact in the state legislative maps (which do not require DeSantis' signature) and the congressional map.

Both sides have agreed that the governor's map violates the state constitution. "It's a really remarkable admission," Warren said. "Their main argument to the judge is that they're allowed to violate the Fair Districts Amendments."

Attorneys for the state claim that the legislature had no choice but to violate the state constitution.

Attorneys for the legislature that lawmakers would've violated the U.S. Constitution if they'd complied with the state constitution

They argue that race was the predominant factor in drawing the former District 5, which closely resembles one of the maps the legislature passed. And they argue that connecting Tallahassee and Jacksonville is the only way to meet the state constitutional threshold — a district with 46% or more Black voters.

Attorneys claim that race was the predominant factor in crafting the district. They argue lawmakers would've violated the Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits states from denying residents equal protection of the laws, by drawing a district solely based on race.

But the Florida Supreme Court approved the former District 5 in 2015 as constitutional.

Plaintiffs' attorneys used the legislature's map in their presentation and demonstrated that other mandatory redistricting factors, such as following natural and political boundaries and keeping cities and counties intact, were taken into account by the legislature.

Map shows congressional districts in North Florida
The Florida Legislature
The Florida legislature passed this map as a backup plan in case the primary map — which contained a less-reliably Black-performing district — was struck down by a court for diminishing African American voting power. Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed both of the legislature's maps and submitted his own for them to pass.

“This legislature actually put forth the map that was compliant, and our governor decided to veto that map and create one that only benefited him and his party politically,” said Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of Equal Ground Education Fund, one of the voting rights groups suing in state court.

The district that plaintiffs say they would like to see enacted is nearly identical to the former Congressional District 5 (CD5) — which stretched from Gadsden County, the state's only county with a majority African American population, to eastern Duval County, picking up Black voters in Tallahassee and Jacksonville.

One of two maps proposed by the legislature last spring contained a slightly more compact version of the original CD5, with smoother lines in Tallahassee and Jacksonville.

The former CD5 was held by Democratic Congressman Al Lawson, who lost his bid for reelection last year after he was forced to run in a newly-drawn Republican district. "This is bigger than me," he said. "People who had the opportunity to elect a person of their choice do not have that anymore."

Copyright 2023 WFSU

Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.