Voting-rights groups seek to revamp case against ‘discriminatory’ DeSantis redistricting plan

Plaintiffs argue map violates 14th Amendment

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces that he will ask the legislature for $25 million to renovate the Freedom Tower, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Miami. The building built in 1925 to house the now defunct Miami News was used as the Cuban Assistance Center to assist Cuban migrants fleeing the Castro regime during the Cold War era. To the right is Lt. Governor Jeanette Nunez. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier) (Marta Lavandier, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Alleging that the map is “intentionally racially discriminatory,” voting-rights groups late Friday requested approval to revamp a federal lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of Florida’s new congressional redistricting plan.

In documents filed in federal court in Tallahassee, the groups and five individual plaintiffs alleged that the plan Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature should be blocked because it will reduce — or eliminate — the chances of Black candidates being elected in North Florida and the Orlando area.

“This is an extraordinary case in that all of the factors point in one direction — the governor created the enacted plan, at least in part for the invidious purpose of discriminating against Black Floridians by constraining their ability to vote, to elect their candidates of choice and to participate fully in the electoral process,” a proposed amended complaint said. “The totality of the circumstances reveal that Governor DeSantis created and signed the enacted plan into law with discriminatory intent — namely, to roll back Black Floridians’ representation in Congress.”

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in March as DeSantis and lawmakers were at an impasse in the once-a-decade reapportionment process. The original version of the lawsuit contended that judges should step in to make sure revamped districts are set before this year’s elections, as continuing to use current districts would be unconstitutional.

But after the Legislature passed the DeSantis-backed redistricting plan during a special session in April, the state argued that the lawsuit was moot. In the court documents filed late Friday, the plaintiffs’ attorneys acknowledged the original issues were moot but sought approval to file an amended complaint targeting the new redistricting plan.

If that approval is not granted, they said they will file a new lawsuit challenging the redistricting plan. The plaintiffs have included the groups Common Cause Florida and FairDistricts Now, while the amended complaint would add the Florida State Conference of the NAACP.

The documents argue that the redistricting plan violates equal-protection rights of Black Floridians under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment and violates the 15th Amendment’s guarantee that the right to vote cannot be “denied or abridged” 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 is projected to increase the number of Republican congressional seats in Florida from 16 to 20, based on 2020 election results. Also, it would cut the number of districts likely to elect Black Democrats from four to two — completely reshaping North Florida’s Congressional District 5 and reducing the percentage of the Black voting-age population in the Orlando area’s Congressional District 10.

District 5, which has drawn the fiercest debate, now sprawls from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee and has elected U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat. Under the new plan, the district would be condensed in the Jacksonville area and would be likely to elect a Republican.

During this year’s regular legislative session, the Senate passed an initial proposal that would have kept the current configuration of District 5. Such a configuration also was included as a backup in a later two-map redistricting plan that the Legislature passed — and DeSantis vetoed.

DeSantis criticized the sprawling configuration of District 5 as being unconstitutionally gerrymandered. In a March 29 memo, DeSantis’ general counsel, Ryan Newman, argued that keeping such a configuration would violate the Equal Protection clause “because it assigns voters primarily on the basis of race but is not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest.”

“The district is not compact, does not conform to usual political or geographic boundaries and is bizarrely shaped to include minority populations in western Leon County and Gadsden County while excluding non-minority populations in eastern Leon County. Because this version of District 5 plainly subordinates traditional districting criteria to avoid diminishment of minority voting age population, there is no question that race was the ‘predominant factor motivating the Legislature’s decision’ to draw this district (in the earlier legislative plans),” Newman’s memo said, partially quoting from a legal precedent.

But the documents filed late Friday described the new redistricting plan as being “infected by racial discrimination against Black Floridians.” In addition to the changes in District 5 and District 10, it said the map “splinters” Black communities in other areas of the state.

“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 proposed amended complaint 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.”

In addition to seeking to have the plan declared unconstitutional, the proposed amendment complaint would request setting a “reasonable deadline” for the state to adopt a new redistricting plan. If such a plan is not adopted, it would call for the court to order a new redistricting plan.

Meanwhile, the plan passed during the special session also faces a challenge in Leon County circuit court. That case contends the overhaul of District 5 violates a 2010 state constitutional amendment — known as the Fair Districts amendment — that sets standards for redistricting in Florida. Judge Layne Smith has scheduled a May 11 hearing on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction against the plan.

About the Author:

Jim has been executive editor of the News Service since 2013 and has covered state government and politics in Florida since 1998.