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Florida Supreme Court Expediting Case of North FL’s Black Congressional District

The Florida Supreme Court will fast-track an appeal attempting to restore a North Florida congressional district capable of sending a Black representative to Washington — one the Legislature dismantled last year at the insistence of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Following a request by the voting-rights organizations challenging the governor’s destruction of the district, the justices gave attorneys for the state until Dec. 29 to file legal arguments in the case. Both the groups and the state have agreed that the case needs speedy resolution ahead of next year’s congressional elections.

On Dec. 1, the Florida First District Court of Appeal upheld the governor’s district map, which divided Black voters in North Florida between five new districts dominated by white Republicans. The old district, referred to in court proceedings as Benchmark District 5, stretched some 200 miles between Jacksonville and Black-majority Gadsden County, including portions of Tallahassee, covering the state’s old plantation belt.

In so doing, that intermediate appellate court snubbed Florida Supreme Court rulings establishing the old district, which since 2016 sent Black Democrat Al Lawson to Congress. The high court back then cited the federal Voting Rights Act and Florida’s Fair Districts Amendment, passed by the voters in 2010. Between them, the federal and state provisions on their face forbid diminishment of ethnic and language minorities’ ability to elect representatives of their choice.

The First District Court of Appeal insisted on weighing in even though attorneys for the voting-rights groups and the state sought direct appeal to the state’s highest court.

“Despite the First DCA’s intervening decision, the need for this court’s review is just as urgent now as it was in September,” when the parties initially sought Supreme Court review, a brief filed by the voting-rights groups argues.

‘Rewriting’ the standard

The First District ruled that the Voting Rights Act and Fair Districts didn’t apply because, in its reading, the Supreme Court established it to rectify a partisan, not a racial, gerrymander. To qualify for protection, the First District Court decided, there needs to be “a naturally occurring, geographically compact community with inherent voting power.” That court concluded that District 5 didn’t qualify because it was too long and narrow.

In so ruling, that court “brazenly” ignored numerous Supreme Court rulings to the contrary, according to the brief filed by the Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute, League of Women Voters of Florida, Equal Ground Education Fund, Florida Rising Together, and individual voters who brought the lawsuit.

Their brief accused the intermediate court of “rewriting the non-diminishment standard altogether, upending over a decade of this court’s precedent and the settled expectations of lawmakers and voters alike regarding Florida’s constitutional requirements for redistricting.”

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

The parties early entered a joint stipulation conceding that the district violated the existing understanding of what the Voting Rights Act and Fair Districts required, with the state’s attorneys seeking a new interpretation that would sustain DeSantis’ contention that the old district constituted a “racial gerrymander.” Since taking office in 2019, DeSantis has appointed five of the seven serving state justices, upending the court’s ideological balance. Meanwhile as president, Donald Trump cemented a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In that stipulation, the challengers agreed to drop any assertion the DeSantis map constitutes a partisan gerrymander. The map created 20 GOP-dominated districts and only eight likely to elect Democrats. Fair Districts also forbids partisan gerrymanders.

Source: Florida Phoenix