Judge expected to rule Florida congressional maps are unconstitutional

(The Center Square) – A Florida circuit judge said in a hearing Wednesday that he intended to rule against the state in a lawsuit brought over Florida’s recently approved redistricting plan. Once the judge makes the ruling, the state will appeal.

The lawsuit, like the previous redistricting lawsuit last decade, is expected to be decided by the state Supreme Court.

The conflict between Florida Democrats and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis over redistricting has been brewing since January, when the governor, through his general counsel Ryan Newman, proposed a different congressional map than the one the legislature had been working on for months.

The governor’s plan, Newman argued, “adheres to federal and state requirements and addresses our legal concerns, while working to increase district compactness, minimize county splits where feasible, and protect minority voting populations.”

Nevertheless, the state legislature continued with its redistricting plan and passed its own congressional maps with bipartisan support. DeSantis then vetoed their plan March 31.

“We have a responsibility to produce maps for our citizens that do not contain unconstitutional racial gerrymanders,” he said when he announced the veto. The legislature’s plan, he argued, violated the U.S. Constitution.

DeSantis then called a three-day special session in April directing the legislature to approve new congressional maps mirroring his plan. When the legislature met to debate and vote on the plan, the Black Democratic Caucus held a sit-in, wouldn’t allow for debate, and disrupted legislative proceedings for about an hour. Once House Speaker Chris Sprowls called the session back to order, he moved to vote on all bills, including the redistricting plan. Then, the Republican majority approved all of the bills while Democrats jeered.

DeSantis then signed four bills into law on April 23. Two prompted lawsuits, including one filed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and activist groups, over the redistricting plan. They argued the new maps violated the Fair Districts amendment to the Florida Constitution and illegally favored Republicans and disenfranchised Black voters.

In a virtual hearing held Wednesday before Judge J. Layne Smith of the 2nd Circuit Court of Florida, DeSantis’ plan hit another roadblock. The judge said he intends to issue an order granting the plaintiff’s request for an injunction, which would temporarily block the congressional maps from going into effect.

While he couldn’t determine if the new maps violated the federal Voting Rights Act, he said, said, “I am finding the enacted map is unconstitutional under the Fair districts amendment because it diminishes African Americans' ability to elect the representative of their choice.”

He also said he wasn’t going to order the legislature “to go back in session [to fix it]. I don’t really think that’s up to me."

His order could come as soon as Thursday, although no date has yet to be determined.

In response, DeSantis’ spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in a statement, “As Judge Smith implied, these complex constitutional matters of law were always going to be decided at the appellate level. 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.”

County elections supervisors have said they need finalized maps by the end of the month. The primary election is Aug. 23.

The First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee could hear the case or send it to the state Supreme Court.

The matter could also be added to another special legislative session that DeSantis called for the week before Memorial Day weekend, when the legislature will convene to address property insurance reform.

The last redistricting lawsuit was decided by the state Supreme Court last decade after going through years of legal battles.

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