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Florida judge blocks DeSantis map ahead of midterm elections

Voters from across Congressional District 5 rallied outside the Old Florida Capitol Building on Tuesday, April 19, 2022.
Valerie Crowder
Voters from across Congressional District 5 rally outside the Old Florida Capitol Building on Tuesday, April 19, 2022 in protest of Gov. Ron DeSantis congressional map, which was temporarily blocked by a state circuit court judge about three weeks later.

A state judge has sided with civil rights groups seeking a redrawing of North Florida’s congressional districts ahead of the midterm elections.

“A ruling that we did not expect until days from today," said Jasmine Burney-Clark, who leads Equal Ground Action Fund, one of the organizations suing over the map. "The fact that the judge was able to rule from the bench a little after noon was pretty remarkable."

Judge Layne Smith, of the state’s 2nd Judicial Circuit Court in Leon County, ruled after a nearly four-hour hearing on Wednesday that the map is unconstitutional because it eliminates a district where African American voters can elect their candidate of choice.

Smith issued an order on Thursday granting the plaintiffs' motion for a temporary injunction, blocking Secretary of State Laurel Lee from implementing the map that Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed into law. Lee then filed an appeal, triggering an automatic stay on Smith's order. The First District Court of Appeal would have to vacate the stay for a replacement map to take effect.

Plaintiffs had requested a quick decision to allow time for a new map to be put in place for the upcoming midterm elections.

The map carved Democratic Rep. Al Lawson’s Congressional District 5 into four separate districts with white majorities. It would disperse 367,000 African American voters across those districts, denying them equal representation, Smith explained. "Out of those four different districts, the African American population is nowhere near a plurality or a majority."

Smith agreed with plaintiffs that the new map violated the Fair Districts Amendment, which prohibits the diminishment of racial and language minority groups’ ability to elect a candidate of their choice.

Both maps the legislature had originally passed would've kept a Black opportunity district in the region. But Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed the plan, drafted a new map and then sent it back to them for passage three weeks later.

“The enacted map is unconstitutional under the Fair Districts Amendment," Smith said. "It diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect the representative of their choice.”

DeSantis has argued that the Fair Districts Amendment conflicts with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding race-based districts.

Smith explained that he wasn’t prepared to go along with that line of reasoning at this time. “I don’t have in front of me what I think I need to say this violates the Fourteenth Amendment because I just don’t have that on this record."

Furthermore, Smith said he thinks the state's Fair Districts Amendments are independent of the federal Voting Rights Act. But that "does not mean that a court might not find what was done unconstitutional," he added. “I’m not going to be that court."

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, the lawsuit's defendant, has argued that it's too late to put in place a new congressional map for the upcoming midterm elections. Some local elections supervisors say they need the new map in place now to prepare for the elections. Smith wasn't convinced, but explained it's important for the courts to move quickly.

“It’s important that we get this to the next step so this can be decided as quickly as possible so that whatever the answer is finally, ultimately, there is time for the administrators to put into action what needs to be done to make it happen.”

DeSantis' office plans to appeal the ruling. “As Judge Smith implied, these complex constitutional matters of law were always going to be decided at the appellate level," wrote Taryn Fenske, the governor's communications director, in an emailed statement. "We will undoubtedly be appealing his ruling and are confident the constitutional map enacted by the Florida legislature and signed into law passes legal muster. We look forward to defending it.”

Smith says he will select a replacement map to serve in the upcoming elections.

The plaintiffs are also suing to have other districts across the state struck down.

"This is just a small victory," said Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of Equal Ground Action Fund. "We have a very long way to go."

Valerie Crowder is a freelance journalist based in Tallahassee, Fl. She's the former ATC host/government reporter for WFSU News. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.