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Voting-rights groups want the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in on redistricting

Ron DeSantis speaking with his hands out
Wilfredo Lee
Attorneys for the groups and other plaintiffs argued in a brief that the Supreme Court should reject a Dec. 1 ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal that upheld the plan, which Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2022.

Attorneys for plaintiffs filed a brief seeking a reversal of an appeal that upheld the plan, which the legislature passed in 2022.

Voting-rights groups Wednesday night asked the Florida Supreme Court to take up a battle about the constitutionality of a congressional redistricting plan and to quickly decide the case as the 2024 elections loom.

Attorneys for the groups and other plaintiffs argued in a brief that the Supreme Court should reject a Dec. 1 ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal that upheld the plan, which Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2022.

The brief also asked justices to “decide this appeal no later than March 2024 such that a remedy, if necessary, may be implemented in time for the 2024 elections.” If the Supreme Court finds the plan unconstitutional, it likely would require the Legislature to redraw congressional districts.

The case centers on an overhaul of North Florida’s Congressional District 5, which in the past stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, and elected Black Democrat Al Lawson. The overhaul, passed during an April 2022 special legislative session, put the district in the Jacksonville area, and white Republicans won all North Florida congressional seats in the November 2022 elections.

In the challenge filed last year, the voting-rights groups and other plaintiffs argued the overhaul violated part of a 2010 constitutional amendment, known as the Fair Districts Amendment, that barred drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.”

While a Leon County circuit judge agreed with the plaintiffs, the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned that decision and ruled in favor of the state.

Focusing heavily on the sprawling nature of the former District 5, the appeals court’s main opinion said the protection offered by what is known as the “non-diminishment” clause of the Fair Districts Amendment and the federal Voting Rights Act “is of the voting power of ‘a politically cohesive, geographically insular minority group.’” It said linking voters across a large stretch of North Florida did not meet such a definition of cohesiveness.

But in the brief filed Wednesday evening, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the appeals court’s decision violated Supreme Court precedents in redistricting cases, including a case that led to the former design of District 5.

“In sum, the First DCA (District Court of Appeal) expressly contravened and cast aside this (Supreme) Court’s decisions interpreting the Fair Districts Amendments and established a new test that cannot be reconciled with multiple decisions of this court,” the brief said. “The court should assert jurisdiction to correct the First DCA’s brazen attempt to ignore this court’s precedent.”

In a separate document filed Wednesday night, the plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to require the state to file a brief by Dec. 29 on the issue of whether justices should take up the case. If the Supreme Court ultimately decides to hear the case, both sides would file briefs with more-detailed legal arguments.

The Supreme Court typically takes far longer than a few months to decide major cases. But the candidate-qualifying period for 2024 congressional races is scheduled from April 22 to April 26.

After Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh sided with the plaintiffs in September, attorneys for both sides requested that the case be fast-tracked to the Supreme Court through a process known as “certification.” That would have effectively led to the 1st District Court of Appeal not hearing arguments and issuing a ruling.

The request was aimed at receiving a Supreme Court decision before the Jan. 9 start of the 2024 legislative session. That would have allowed lawmakers to redraw the map, if needed, during the session, which is scheduled to end March 8.

But the Tallahassee-based appeals court rejected the request, ultimately resulting in the Dec. 1 ruling.

In a dissenting opinion, appeals-court Judge Ross Bilbrey wrote that the case should have been passed through to the Supreme Court. But Judge Thomas Winokur disputed that argument in an opinion that concurred with the main decision.

“We are not violating case law if we choose not to certify; we are merely exercising our constitutional duty to hear an appeal within our jurisdiction and exercising our discretion not to send the case to the supreme court,” Winokur wrote.

A coalition of groups, such as the League of Women Voters of Florida and Equal Ground Education Fund, and individual plaintiffs filed the lawsuit. Also, a separate challenge to the redistricting plan is pending in federal court.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.