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Federal panel clears the way for challenge to Florida's congressional redistricting

Gavel on a table
Charlie Neibergall
/
AP

As Florida Republicans added four U.S. House seats in Tuesday’s elections, a panel of federal judges refused to toss out a lawsuit that alleges a congressional redistricting plan is “intentionally racially discriminatory.”

The plan, which Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature during an April special session, was used in the elections amid constitutional challenges in federal and state courts.

In a 2-1 decision Tuesday, a panel of judges rejected a request by the DeSantis administration to dismiss the federal case, though it dismissed DeSantis as a named defendant. The lawsuit alleges the redistricting plan is unconstitutional because it improperly reduced the chances of Black candidates being elected in districts in North Florida and the Orlando area.

In a motion to dismiss filed in June, attorneys for the state argued, in part, that the plaintiffs’ allegations “are insufficient to salvage claims of intentional discrimination. Legislatures are entitled the presumption of good faith. Redistricting is no exception.”

But Judges Adalberto Jordan and M. Casey Rodgers, in Tuesday’s majority opinion, disagreed that the plaintiffs had “failed to adequately state claims for intentional discrimination” and said the case should move forward.

“The defendants argue that the good faith of a legislature must be presumed, and they assert that the plaintiffs must ‘overcome’ that presumption and ‘show’ that the Florida Legislature ‘passed’ the congressional districting map because of its adverse effects on Black voters,” wrote Jordan, a judge on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Rodgers, a federal district judge.

“To the extent that the defendants are arguing about proof, their argument is premature. We are not at the evidentiary stage of the case, and our only task is to evaluate the complaint for facial sufficiency (i.e., plausibility).”

But the third member of the panel, U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, contended that the lawsuit should be dismissed. “Plaintiffs’ allegations do not plausibly show that discriminatory intent — and not race-neutral factors like political forces inherent in ordinary lawmaking — motivated the Legislature,” Winsor wrote.

The lawsuit, filed this spring by Common Cause Florida, Fair Districts Now, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and individual plaintiffs, alleges that the redistricting plan violates the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment. The 14th Amendment ensures equal protection, while the 15th Amendment prohibits denying or abridging the right to vote based on race.

DeSantis called the April special session after he vetoed a redistricting plan that lawmakers passed. During the special session, the Republican-dominated House and Senate quickly passed a map that DeSantis’ office proposed.

The map helped lead Tuesday to Florida Republicans increasing their number of U.S. House members from 16 to 20. The lawsuit focuses on changes that completely reshaped North Florida’s Congressional District 5 and reduced the percentage of the Black voting-age population in the Orlando area’s Congressional District 10.

District 5 sprawled in recent years from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee and elected U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat. Under the new plan, the district was condensed in the Jacksonville area. Lawson ran in another North Florida district and lost to U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla.

The lawsuit alleged that the redistricting plan “was adopted, at least in part, for the purpose of disadvantaging Black voters.”

“It blatantly flouts the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment’s prohibition on laws enacted with an invidious purpose, i.e., intentional discrimination on the basis of race,” the lawsuit said. “It likewise blatantly ignores the Fifteenth Amendment’s promise that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race.”

Tuesday’s panel decision does not resolve the underlying allegations in the case. Secretary of State Cord Byrd remains as a named defendant. Unlike other types of lawsuits handled by district judges, redistricting cases require three-judge panels with at least one appellate judge.

Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit is pending in Leon County circuit court that alleges the changes to Congressional District 5 violate a 2010 state constitutional amendment that set standards for redistricting.

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