TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A state appeals court on Friday overturned a ruling that declared Gov. Ron DeSantis’ congressional map unconstitutional, setting the stage for the legal battle to finally head to the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court.
The map pushed by the governor dismantled the North Florida seat of former Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, and resulted in Republicans gaining four seats that helped the GOP flip the U.S. House during the 2022 midterm elections.
A circuit court judge back in August said the map violated Florida’s constitution and ordered that legislators redraw it.
Initially, both sides wanted the case to be decided by the state’s highest court ahead of the 2024 legislative session that starts in January and asked that the legal challenge be fast-tracked. But instead, in an unusual move, the entire 1st District Court of Appeals took up the appeal, which slowed down the resolution of the legal clash between the GOP-controlled Legislature, DeSantis and voting rights and civil rights groups that sued the state over the maps.
Judge J. Lee Marsh in August had found that the map’s elimination of the seat held by Lawson diminished the ability of minority voters to elect a candidate of their choice, as outlined in voter-approved standards known as Fair Districts. In his ruling, Marsh cited what he called the “precedent” of the previous Florida Supreme Court decision that created Congressional District 5, which stretched from Jacksonville to just west of Tallahassee.
But on Friday, the appeals court, by a 8-2 vote, rejected that logic and contended that the judges were not bound by the previous state Supreme Court decision. The judges also asserted that not enough was done to demonstrate that Lawson’s 160-mile long district was truly harmed by the new map.
“The plaintiffs did not submit any evidence regarding the existence of naturally occurring (rather than court manufactured) Black communities within the former CD-5,” states the ruling written by judges Brad Thomas and Adam Tanenbaum. “Nothing in the record describes who the Black voters are as members of a meaningful community — nothing about a shared history or shared socio-economic experience among the Black voters in Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and other areas throughout the expanse of former CD-5.”
Thomas was appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush while Tanenbaum was appointed by DeSantis.
The ruling added that the lawsuit itself was based on a “false premise” that “minority voters living hundreds of miles apart” are “entitled to proportional representation because they were once included together in former CD-5 by court order for three election cycles.”
Two judges on the panel dissented. Judge Ross Bilbrey, who was appointed to the court by former Gov. Rick Scott, sharply criticized the appeals court for refusing to speed the case on to the state Supreme Court.
“By failing to do so, we have deviated from our past practice and delayed the ultimate resolution to the detriment of the voters, election officials, and candidates in North Florida,” he wrote.
Bilbrey also contended that Marsh’s initial ruling against the map was supported by “competent, substantial evidence.” He added that “a politically cohesive racial minority is now denied the ability to elect a candidate of choice in a racially polarized district, showing that unconstitutional diminishment has occurred.”
Those involved in lawsuits challenging the governor’s map blasted the appeals court ruling.
“Every Floridian should be gravely concerned that their judicial system is turning a blind eye to state-sanctioned voter suppression,” said Genesis Robinson, political director for Equal Ground, one of the groups that sued over the maps. “How are Black voters in Florida supposed to have equal representation under the law when the diminishment of their voting rights goes unchecked?”
Amy Keith, Common Cause Florida executive director, said the ruling reflects the importance of her group’s decision to challenge the maps in a separate federal lawsuit. A ruling in that case is expected by the end of the year.
Florida picked up one congressional seat in 2022 due to population growth for a total of 28 districts. Lawmakers initially planned to preserve Lawson’s district until DeSantis objected and contended that the existing district was an illegal race-based gerrymander. The Legislature came back with another map that shifted it eastward around Jacksonville, but still contained a substantial number of Black voters.
DeSantis responded by vetoing the map and instead pressured the Legislature to enact one drawn up by his staff.