June 8, 2023

State takes aim at redistricting ruling

The state asked an appeals court Wednesday to reinstate a stay on a circuit judge’s ruling that blocked a congressional redistricting plan pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

An emergency motion filed at the 1st District Court of Appeal argued that Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith erred last week when he issued a temporary injunction against the plan — and when he lifted a stay on the ruling Monday.

The case centers on 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.”

Smith’s temporary injunction also 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.

The state last week appealed the temporary injunction, a move that triggered an automatic stay under court rules. But Smith on Monday held a hearing and approved a request from voting-rights groups to vacate the stay.

In the filing Wednesday, attorneys for the state requested that the Tallahassee-based 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 the district, Congressional 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.

“(The) U.S. and Florida Supreme Courts have made clear that trial courts, in all but perhaps the most extraordinary circumstances, cannot issue injunctions that alter state election laws in the months preceding an election,” the state’s attorneys wrote.

Attorneys for voting-rights groups and other plaintiffs in the case filed a notice saying they would respond Thursday to the state’s emergency motion. Separately, the plaintiffs’ attorneys requested that the issue of vacating the stay should be fast-tracked to the Florida Supreme Court, effectively bypassing the 1st District Court of Appeal.

“At this point, no matter how quick, this court’s (the 1st District Court of Appeals’) review of the stay-vacatur order in this court would severely constrain, if not prevent, the Supreme Court from issuing a final ruling on injunctive relief securing fundamental constitutional rights in time for the 2022 elections,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote.

In vacating the stay Monday, Smith also pointed to the short amount of time to prepare for the year’s elections.

“It’s crunch time now, and this involves fundamental constitutional rights,” Smith said.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit April 22 after the Republican-dominated Legislature passed the DeSantis-backed redistricting plan during a special session. That plan would boost the number of GOP representatives in Florida’s congressional delegation.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs also asked for the temporary injunction focusing on District 5, which has been held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat. The DeSantis plan to put the district in the Jacksonville area would reduce the chances of electing a Black representative.

In issuing the temporary injunction, 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 violates the non-diminishment standard” of the Fair Districts amendment.

Smith also 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.”

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