Florida Supreme Court to take up challenge to congressional redistricting plan

The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to take up a challenge to the constitutionality of a congressional redistricting plan, but it appears the case will not be resolved before a candidate-qualifying deadline for the November elections.

The Supreme Court issued an order saying it will hear an appeal by voting-rights groups and other plaintiffs, rejecting arguments by the state that it should turn down the case. The voting-rights groups went to the Supreme Court after the 1st District Court of Appeal on Dec. 1 upheld the constitutionality of the redistricting plan.

But a timeline in the Supreme Court’s order indicated that the case likely not be resolved before a candidate-qualifying period for 2024 congressional races. That qualifying period is scheduled from April 22 to 26.

The order gave attorneys for voting-rights groups until Feb. 28 to file an initial brief, followed by 30 days for lawyers for Secretary of State Cord Byrd and the Legislature to file what is known as an answer brief. The voting-rights groups would then have 30 days to file another brief, and the order raised the possibility of the state having 30 days to file an additional brief.

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The order did not set a date for oral arguments, which will follow the filing of briefs. It said attorneys “will be notified of the oral argument date approximately 60 days prior to oral argument.”

Bottom line, such a schedule could have the effect of keeping in place the disputed congressional plan for this year’s elections. That map, pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Ron DeSantis, helped lead to Republicans picking up seats in the 2022 elections.

The case centers on a North Florida district that in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson but was overhauled during an April 2022 special legislative session. The overhaul put the district, Congressional District 5, in the Jacksonville area, and white Republicans won all North Florida congressional seats in the November 2022 elections.

The plaintiffs argued the overhaul violated part of a 2010 constitutional amendment, known as the Fair Districts Amendment, that barred drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.” While a Leon County circuit judge agreed with the plaintiffs, the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned that decision and ruled in favor of the state.

In a Dec. 13 brief asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, lawyers for the plaintiffs contended the appeals court’s decision violated Supreme Court precedents in redistricting cases, including a case that led to the former design of Congressional District 5.

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

A key issue in the 1st District Court of Appeal’s ruling was the sprawling shape of the former Congressional District 5. The district stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, incorporating areas with significant numbers of Black voters.

The appeals court’s main opinion said the protection offered by what is known as the “non-diminishment” clause of the Fair Districts Amendment and the federal Voting Rights Act “is of the voting power of ‘a politically cohesive, geographically insular minority group.'” It said linking voters across a large stretch of North Florida did not meet such a definition of cohesiveness.

In filings Dec. 29 at the Supreme Court, attorneys for Byrd and the Legislature disputed that the appeals-court ruling violated Supreme Court precedents and cited the sprawling nature of the former district, known in the case as “Benchmark CD-5.”

“The First District rightly rejected petitioners’ (the plaintiffs’) non-diminishment claim,” attorneys for Byrd wrote. “Petitioners failed to prove that Benchmark CD-5 contained a compact and naturally occurring black community with shared interests, or that the district was reasonably configured.”

Attorneys for the state also said the Supreme Court should let stand the appeals-court ruling rather than taking up the case.

“The First District’s decision is correct, these facts (in the case) are unlikely to recur, and review at this late stage would leave state election officials uncertain as they prepare for the 2024 primaries,” attorneys for Byrd, the state’s chief elections official, wrote.

The Supreme Court voted 6-0 to take up the case, with Justice Charles Canady recused. As is common, the ruling did not explain Canady’s reason for recusal, though his wife, Jennifer, is a state House member.

A separate challenge to the redistricting plan is pending in federal court. That case involves federal constitutional issues.