Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
First Coast

Judge strikes down congressional map for reducing Black voting power

A judge said this congressional map is unconstitutional.

A 2nd Judicial Circuit Court judge struck down Jacksonville’s congressional districts in a ruling against Florida’s redistricting process for violating the state constitution by reducing Black voting power in North Florida.

Circuit Judge J. Layne Smith said, “I am finding the enacted map is unconstitutional because it diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect candidates of their choice.”

He ordered the state to adopt a map that maintains an east-to-west version of Jacksonville’s 5th Congressional District, stretching from Duval to Gadsden counties.

The ruling came after a Wednesday hearing that saw plaintiffs argue that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ congressional map, which eliminated Jacksonville’s current Black ability-to-elect district, violated the state constitution.

The governor’s office said it will appeal the ruling. It would first go the 1st District Court of Appeal, and then if appealed again, it would go to the Florida Supreme Court. The 1st District could also choose to send it straight to the state’s highest court.

Once appealed, the ruling will be automatically stayed, meaning it won’t be in effect during the appeal, but Smith, a DeSantis appointee, urged elections officials to do what’s necessary to get ready for the August primaries.

Smith could lift that stay, ensuring his order goes into effect while the appeals are ongoing. If he does so, the appellate courts could issue a new stay order, which would again pause the order from going into effect.

The Legislature had initially passed a map that drew a Black ability-to-elect district wholly in Duval County, but DeSantis vetoed that map.

Even though the Legislature’s leadership and staff said the new districts in DeSantis’ proposal would not allow Black voters to have the ability to elect their preferred candidates, Republicans passed the map over Democrats’ protest.

The Florida Legislature’s redistricting maps in the 1990s and 2010s were similarly struck down, but in those cases, it took six years to get a final ruling.

This time, the plaintiffs sought to focus on getting a preliminary injunction redrawing North Florida’s districts before the 2022 elections. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs are still seeking a full trial to get the whole map thrown out.

The lawsuit was filed by Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute, Equal Ground Education Fund, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Florida Rising and individual voters. The Elias Law Group and Perkins Coie, law firms that represent Democratic causes, brought the lawsuit, along with Orlando’s King, Blackwell, Zehnder and Wermuth.

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, told The Tributary he will run for re-election to the 5th Congressional District. If the appellate courts strike down Smith’s order and re-instate the governor’s map, Lawson said he’s unsure if he would run for election to the 2nd Congressional District.

Tony Hill, a former state lawmaker and labor leader who has worked on Lawson’s staff, had just announced Tuesday that he was running for the governor’s new version of the district. If the court’s order is upheld and Lawson does run for re-election, then Hill said he’d likely step aside.

A spokesman for Republican candidate Erick Aguilar — who has been running for the governor’s version of the Jacksonville-based district — said Aguilar would run for election, regardless of which map is ultimately in place.

Rep. Jason Fischer, another Republican running for the district, has not yet returned a request for comment.

During Wednesday’s hearing, a lawyer for Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee argued it was too close to the August primaries to enact a new map.

At one point, he cited an affidavit by Duval County chief elections officer Robert Phillips and said it “comes really close” to saying it’s impossible at this point to enact a new map.

Phillips on Wednesday disputed that characterization.

“If the court says do it, we have to do it,” he said. “… The fact they ruled so quickly makes it easier.”

This story is published through a partnership between WJCT News and The Tributary