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Judge strikes down Jacksonville redistricting as racial gerrymandering

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

A federal judge has struck down seven Jacksonville City Council and three Duval School Board districts in the racial gerrymandering lawsuit brought against the city.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard found that City Council likely used race as a predominant factor in drawing the maps in violation of the 14th Amendment.

“The evidence that the Challenged Districts are the product of intentional race-based decision-making is largely unrebutted and compelling,” the judge wrote. “And absent an injunction, the irreparable Constitutional harm caused by the unnecessary racial segregation of voters in the Challenged Districts will be complete and perpetuate for years into the future. For this reason, new maps must be drawn in advance of the next election.”

This means the city will get a second chance at redrawing the maps, and then the plaintiffs could challenge the new map and propose their own. The city must enact its new map by Nov. 8. Plaintiffs may submit alternative proposals if they object by Nov. 18.

INTERACTIVE: See how Jacksonville's City Council districts sort residents by race

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.

The judge agreed, granting a preliminary injunction that bars the city from holding elections using the gerrymandered districts.

Howard also criticized the shape of the districts. Even though the city charter and ordinance code require compact districts, she said, “no matter how many ways one might try to describe the shape of Districts 7-10, and 14, the word compact would not apply, elongated, or sprawling, perhaps — but certainly not ‘compact.'”

She said the shapes prompted “obvious questions.”

“Why does District 8, the bulk of which encompasses the rural northwest side of Jacksonville, forgo compactness to incorporate an appendage reaching deep into downtown?” she wrote. “Why must District 7 jump the Trout River, in order to connect a slice of Jacksonville’s northside to the downtown? Why do Districts 9 and 10 use narrow land bridges, each only one voting precinct wide, to connect their disparate sections? And why must District 9 incorporate a bizarre claw that reaches into District 14 to divide neighborhoods in a manner that, intentionally or not, separates Black residents from their White neighbors?”

City Council leadership had expressed complete confidence the city would win.

Before the ruling, Sam Newby, the City Council president when the maps were approved, said he was “100% confident” the city would win. His successor, City Council President Terrance Freeman, said he had “the utmost confidence in the work my colleagues did during the redistricting process.”

Redistricting Committee Chairman Aaron Bowman previously said, “I don’t see a scenario where it gets overridden, so I’ll stay away from hypotheticals” about what to do if the court strikes down the map.

The city’s lawyers will now meet with City Council in a non-public meeting to discuss whether to accept the ruling or appeal it to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Freeman and Duval County Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan have not yet returned a request for comment.

Harvard Law School’s Election Law Clinic, which represented plaintiffs along with the ACLU of Florida and the Southern Poverty Law Center, posted on Twitter that the order was a “huge win for communities of color” in Jacksonville.

Howard pointed to the history of Jacksonville’s redistricting, saying that the evidence about 2011’s redistricting “unabashedly points to racial gerrymandering.”

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