Secretary of State Laurel Lee’s Office appealed a court decision which found Florida’s new congressional map was unconstitutional.
Leon Circuit Judge Layne Smith on Thursday issued an order for the map — signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis — to be replaced for the Midterms with an alternative submission from Harvard professor Stephen Ansolabehere. The replacement cartography only redraws districts in North Florida, most notably restoring Florida’s 5th Congressional District into a configuration similar to how it has looked for five years. That makes it a seat with a 49% Black population and one where a majority of voters went for Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 Presidential Election.
But the appeal filed by Lee’s Office automatically puts Smith’s decision on hold, leaving the DeSantis map (P 0109) in place for the moment. Smith signaled he could vacate the stay on his decision. Regardless, the case now goes to the 1st District Court of Appeals.
That court could fast-track the matter to the Florida Supreme Court, or it could move forward on a case and start considering it within weeks.
Plaintiffs filed a motion on Friday suggested the appellate court immediately certify Smith’s order and send the matter directly to the state’s high court.
“The district court recognized that ‘time is of the essence’ in a case like this one,” the brief states, “For Florida voters to obtain relief in advance of the 2022 elections, Florida’s election apparatus needs to begin implementing such a new plan within just few weeks… This appeal requires immediate resolution by the Supreme Court and is both of great public importance and will have a great effect on the administration of justice throughout the state.”
The appeal was filed after business hours, at around 5:36 p.m. A certified copy of the appeal notice was sent to the appellate court early Friday.
Of note, election officials in a separate federal case had previously asserted election officials must have a map in place by May 13 — Friday — at the latest in order to properly implement cartography in time for Florida’s Aug. 23 Primary. Those opinions were filed after DeSantis vetoed maps approved by the Legislature.
Some officials have since backed off that initial timetable, though others, including in affected areas like Columbia County, said implementing a new map this late in the election cycle could require extra personnel or overtime costs.
Smith’s order said that’s a price that should be absorbed.
“This Court appreciates that its order may cause inconvenience, hard work, and expense. Notwithstanding, these concerns do not outweigh Plaintiffs’ rights,” he said.
The notice of appeal filed by the state did not outline specific arguments for overruling Smith’s order, but attorneys for the Secretary of State’s Office presented their case in a Wednesday hearing.
Attorney Mohammad Omar Jazil argued in court that the Ansolabehere plan, which borrows cartography from one of Legislature’s maps that DeSantis vetoed, would violate the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution. He said CD 5, represented now by Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, was wrongly drawn with race as a motivating factor.
He argued the district, which spans more than 200 miles from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, will not meet requirements of strict scrutiny if challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s because despite cobbling together the Florida A&M University area, Florida’s only majority Black county in Gadsden County, and heavily Black portions of west Jacksonville, the population still falls short of having a 50% Black population.
But plaintiffs in the case, backed by former Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Redistricting Foundation and represented by prominent Democratic lawyer Marc Elias’ law firm, argue the map runs afoul of Florida’s Fair Districts amendment in the state constitution. That prohibits redistricting in a way that diminishes the ability of minority communities to elect a congressional representative of their choice.
Smith agreed with that argument, noting almost 370,000 Black Floridians living in the benchmark configuration of CD 5 under the DeSantis map would be dispersed among several districts ranging from 12% to 25% Black, ending the ability for Black voters to control the outcome of the congressional election.