Appeals court puts redistricting decision on hold

Rep. Al Lawson

By Jim Saunders
News Service of Florida

 An appeals court reinstated a stay against a circuit judge’s decision that blocked a congressional redistricting plan pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Ron DeSantis, pointing to a “high likelihood” that the judge erred.

The 1st District Court of Appeal, in a four-paragraph order last Friday, put on hold a temporary injunction issued last week by Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith. The temporary injunction blocked a redistricting plan that the Legislature passed during an April special session.

The state’s appeal of Smith’s decision triggered an automatic stay of the temporary injunction. But Smith followed up last Monday by lifting the automatic stay at the request of voting-rights groups and other plaintiffs who have challenged the constitutionality of the redistricting plan.

In reinstating the stay, however, the Tallahassee-based appeals court signaled that it did not agree with the temporary injunction.

“Based on a preliminary review, the court has determined there is a high likelihood that the temporary injunction is unlawful, because by awarding a preliminary remedy to the appellees (the plaintiffs) on their claim, the order ‘frustrated the status quo, rather than preserved it,’ ” the appeals court said, quoting a legal precedent.

The appeals court also cited the “exigency of the circumstances and the need for certainty and continuity as election season approaches.”

Reinstating the stay substantially increases the chances that the DeSantis-backed redistricting plan will be in effect for this year’s elections. The plaintiffs, however, have asked that the underlying legal battle about the temporary injunction be put on a fast track to the Florida Supreme Court, a move known as seeking “certification” to the Supreme Court.

The case centers on Congressional District 5, a sprawling North Florida district that was drawn in the past to help elect a Black member of Congress. DeSantis argued that continuing with such a district would involve racial gerrymandering and violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Legislature approved DeSantis’ proposal to revamp the district, condensing it in the Jacksonville area. But Smith ruled that the plan violated a 2010 state constitutional amendment — known as the Fair Districts amendment — that barred diminishing the ability of minority voters to “elect representatives of their choice.”

The overall redistricting plan passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature is expected to increase the number of GOP members of the state’s congressional delegation from 16 to 20, based on past voting patterns. District 5 is currently held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, but the revamped district likely would flip to Republicans.

“While I’m disappointed in (Friday’s) decision by the appellate court to reinstate DeSantis’ unconstitutional map, I am confident that the Florida Supreme Court will soon take over this issue and protect the rights of Black voters in North Florida,” Lawson said in a statement immediately after the ruling. “The trial judge was correct to protect minority voting rights by following prior Supreme Court rulings and maintaining the current status quo for North Florida.”

Smith’s temporary injunction ordered use of a map that would keep the current sprawling shape of the district, which stretches from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee. Using that map also would affect some other districts.

Smith, who was appointed as a circuit judge by DeSantis, wrote that the plaintiffs had shown a “substantial likelihood of proving that the enacted plan (passed by the Legislature) violates the non-diminishment standard” of the Fair Districts amendment.

But in a filing last Wednesday, attorneys for the state requested that the appeals court reinstate the stay while the underlying appeal moves forward. They also took aim at Smith’s temporary injunction, saying the sprawling configuration of District 5 is not “narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling interest” as required by federal law.

“There is no compelling justification for a racially gerrymandered district in North Florida,” the 67-page filing said. “As adopted by the circuit court, Congressional District 5 does not serve any compelling state interest that could be consistent with the federal Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.”

The state’s attorneys also argued that Smith erred by issuing an injunction to require use of a different map so close to this year’s elections. The candidate-qualifying period for the elections will be held in mid-June, with primaries on Aug. 23.

In the temporary injunction, however, Smith rejected the DeSantis administration’s arguments about the Equal Protection Clause and whether a compelling interest existed for keeping the east-west shape of District 5. He wrote, in part, that “compliance with the Fair Districts amendment’s non-diminishment provision is a compelling state interest.”

Also, he wrote that “addressing the history of voting-related racial discrimination and a lack of representation in North Florida in itself constitutes a compelling state interest.”

The appeals-court order last Friday reinstating the stay did not delve into details of the federal and state constitutional issues.

But voting-rights groups that are plaintiffs in the lawsuit issued a joint statement last Friday arguing the plan is unconstitutional.

“Today’s ruling does nothing to change the fact that the governor’s proposed map is a blatantly unconstitutional attack on Black representation in Florida,” the statement said. “Rather than continuing to waste taxpayer money defending this map, it is our hope the governor will drop this appeal and allow our state to move forward with congressional districts that follow the will of the voters under the Fair Districts Amendments and allow all Floridians to make their voices are heard in decisions that directly impact their communities.”

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