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Federal judge probes Jacksonville City Council redistricting

The Bryan Simpson U.S. Courthouse in Jacksonville.
The Tributary
The Bryan Simpson U.S. Courthouse in Jacksonville.

A federal judge heard arguments about Jacksonville’s redistricting process from city lawyers and voting-rights advocates Friday morning and indicated she may need to request a second hearing if she can’t finalize a decision.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard didn’t say which way she was going to rule, but she plans to file a written order that either strikes down or preserves the Jacksonville City Council and Duval School Board districts that plaintiffs say were racially gerrymandered.

She said that if she still has unanswered questions and isn’t able to reach a decision, then she will request a second hearing on Sept. 29.

Ten voters and four civil rights organizations filed the lawsuit, saying the city had packed Black voters into four out of 14 districts far beyond what would’ve been necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act. Packing Black voters had the effect of reducing Black voting power in Jacksonville, they said.

City lawyers rebutted that claim, saying redistricting is a difficult process but the City Council didn’t use race as the predominant factor driving its decisions. Instead, they said the council wanted to preserve historic districts and make as few changes as possible. At times, lawyers said, some council members wanted to pack Democrats into certain districts.

The 14th Amendment bars making race the predominant factor in redistricting, unless there’s a compelling and narrowly tailored reason to do so, like complying with the Voting Rights Act. The U.S. Constitution does not prohibit packing in voters by party, however.

Jacksonville General Counsel Jason Teal said that if the court does strike down the districts, then the City Council would meet with its lawyers in a shade meeting to decide if the city should appeal the decision.

After the hearing, plaintiffs and their attorneys said redistricting matters because it affects every aspect of neighborhood life in Jacksonville.

Under the city’s district maps, “Black communities will have fewer council members to advocate for equal investment in schools, to decide which roads are repaired and to determine how rules are made and enforced,” said Matletha Bennette, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney representing plaintiffs.

For nearly three hours, lawyers from both sides presented arguments about the council districts.

“They’re not compact, and they are sprawling,” Judge Howard told the city lawyer at one point. “… Did the City Council not just say, ‘Let’s look at the prior lines and see if they were drawn appropriately to begin with?'”

“Well, the City Council started from the proposition that the lines were properly drawn,” said Jacksonville assistant general counsel Mary Margaret Giannini. “They had no reason to believe they were improperly drawn in 2011.”

The Tributary’s reportingshowed that in past redistricting cycles, including in 2011, council members believed they needed to draw certain districts to be at least 60% Black. This time around,the City Council said it prioritized making as few changes as possible from the 2011 maps.

Jacksonville’s charter requires the City Council to draw districts that are “logical and compact.” A trial scheduled for next year would also bring a claim that the districts violated that provision. Howard’s statement seemed to indicate she may agree.

Daniel Hessel, an attorney with Harvard Law School’s Election Law Clinic, told Howard that some of the organizations suing this time weren’t around in 2011 to sue back then over those maps.

Still, Howard indicated she was unsure if it was appropriate to grant an injunction without a full trial when the districts have been around for such a long time.

“I have some hesitation about the court stepping in on an expedited basis to address what has been in place” that long, she said. “We’ve had the opportunity to address it in a more robust manner for quite some time.”

Some City Council members have said they are absolutely certain the city will win the case — former Council President Sam Newby said he was “100% confident” the city would win, sentiments echoed by then-Redistricting Committee Chairman Aaron Bowman and current Council President Terrance Freeman. Freeman declined to comment after the hearing.

But Giannini told Howard she and the other city attorneys “think this is a close one because a lot of this comes down to credibility.”

She said that if Howard agrees the question of racial gerrymandering isn’t clear-cut, then Howard shouldn’t block the maps ahead of the 2023 elections.

Giannini argued it would be unfair to candidates to change the lines because, under the city’s charter, candidates for City Council had to establish residency by July in the district they plan to run in for next year’s elections.

Hessel rebutted, saying more than half of the states require candidates for office to reside in a certain area for at least a year, but that hasn’t stopped courts from redrawing districts after those deadlines have passed.

Still, Howard expressed sharp concerns over how long it took the plaintiffs to file their lawsuit and motion for an injunction. The City Council passed the new districts in March. The plaintiffs filed their lawsuit in May, and then they filed the injunction motion in July.

It might have been possible, Howard suggested, to get new district lines before the July residency deadline if the lawsuit and injunction request had been filed sooner.

“Waiting until July creates harm to the electoral process, and I’m wary of the cautions of the court to not interfere in that manner,” she said.

“The [legal] standard … is not whether there is some complication but if there is such complication it would sow true chaos,” Hessel replied. “No other court has ever held that an injunction issued this far ahead of an election causes this type of chaos, and I noted why I don’t think this court should be the first to do so.”

Howard seemed convinced that despite what City Council members have said, race was a significant factor in the city’s redistricting.

“The council’s stated goals were: start with the existing lines, protect incumbents, minimize river crossings, use total population numbers, respect communities of interest,” Howard said. “Protect incumbents, it looks to me, was not a significant factor. Minimizing river crossings, [that] did not change. Using total population numbers doesn’t go one way or the other.

“Respecting communities of interest and starting with the existing lines — both of those seem to boil down to race.”

Giannini said that just because the city considered race didn’t mean it was a predominant factor, but Howard seemed skeptical of that argument as well.

Howard asked: “When you have council members talking about, I’m at 68% [Black] and I’m happy with that, is that — and some of the other comments — is that really, ‘If it isn’t broke don’t fix it?’ Or is it, ‘Nobody’s complained about the fact it’s broke so let’s just keep it going?'”

Howard acknowledged the decision was a hard one to make, and she told the attorneys she would let them know if she feels she needs a second hearing.

At a news conference after the hearing, Rosemary McCoy, president of the Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters and another plaintiff, said that racial gerrymandering “is modern-day segregation, plain and simple. The government is trying to tell me and those just like me because of the color of my skin that I am not allowed to vote with white neighbors for the issues and people who affect our neighborhood.”

Ben Frazier, president of the Northside Coalition and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said that just looking at the map with its sprawling districts shows it’s unfair. “This City Council has drawn up a map that deliberately discriminates and limits the influence, the clout and the power of the Black vote here in Duval County.”

He and other plaintiffs said that Councilmembers Brenda Priestly Jackson, Ju’Coby Pittman and Reggie Gaffney — three of the council members cited throughout the lawsuit — did not listen to residents speaking out against the gerrymandering during the process.

“They didn’t listen to the voice of the people,” Frazier said. “They made a mistake. They need to make a mid-course about-face.”

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