Judge puts replacement congressional map back in place, appellate courts yet to move

The most important next move comes from the First District Court of Appeal.

A judge once again made clear a replacement map for Florida’s new congressional lines should be used by Election Supervisors. But a decision has yet to be made by the First District Court of Appeal on which cartography will govern Florida’s midterm elections.

Leon Circuit Judge Layne Smith vacated an automatic stay on an order he issued last week to replace a map signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis with one submitted by Harvard professor Stephen Ansolabehere.

The Florida Secretary of State’s Office promptly appealed the order to the First District Court of Appeal. That automatically put a hold on enforcing Smith’s order.

But plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the map asked in a motion for Smith to lift the automatic stay.

“The Secretary cannot demonstrate she has a likelihood of success on appeal — indeed her position is contrary to binding Florida Supreme Court precedent,” plaintiffs argued in a brief. “On the other side of the scale, per se irreparable harm will occur if the automatic stay is allowed to remain in place indefinitely.”

Basically, attorneys argued that a lengthy appeal could, practically speaking, make Smith’s decision ineffective if it lasts past a point for the Ansolabehere map to be in place for this year’s Midterms.

Smith agreed.

“The automatic stay rule is based upon deference to planning-level government decisions. Here, the issue is the Legislature’s compliance with the state constitution — not some run-of-the-mill executive branch planning decision!” Smith wrote in an order. “Thus, the Secretary of State is due no deference.”

Plaintiffs, backed by former Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Redistricting Foundation, argue the DeSantis map would diminish the ability of Black voters in North Florida to elect a congressional representative of their choice, which would directly violate the Fair Districts amendment passed by Florida voters in 2010.

The Ansolabehere map replaces only a handful of districts in North Florida, primarily to preserve a configuration of Florida’s 5th Congressional District that has been in place since 2015. The district, represented now by Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, stretched from Tallahassee to Jacksonville and covers a number of heavily Black populations, including Gadsden County, Florida’s only majority Black county.

DeSantis’ staff drew the map (P 0109), and the Governor has argued the current CD 5 make-up violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause because race was the motivating factor when it was drawn.

Attorneys for the Secretary of State argued that case in court last week. The concern again was raised in a brief opposing lifting an automatic stay while Smith’s decision is appealed. An analysis of the map “underscores the Secretary’s concerns that predominates in any reiteration of Congressional District 5 that stretches 200 miles from east to west.”

They also argue the Ansolabehere map was simply drawn with haste and has sloppy errors.

Regardless, Smith decided Monday his map should stand until an appellate court says otherwise.

Meanwhile, a case file has been opened with the appellate court but little has happened to date. Plaintiffs there have suggested judges simply affirm Smith’s order and direct the case directly to the Florida Supreme Court. With a statewide congressional map, most expect the state’s high court will ultimately have the final say on whether DeSantis’ map or an alternative governs the Midterms.

And of course, the fundamental argument DeSantis has maintained about the need to dismantle CD 5 relies on an interpretation of the federal Constitution, which could require the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.

Not all these arguments must be waged and settled that year. A challenge to the map ultimately approved by the Florida Legislature in 2012 ultimately prevailed, but not until 2015. By that point, two election cycles unfolded with a map the court ultimately deemed to be unconstitutional.

That’s partially why the recent court wrangling involves only a request regarding North Florida. While plaintiffs have filed a complaint alleging the entire map violates the Fair Districts language, and a federal case continues to unfold alleging the DeSantis map in fact goes against the equal protection language he relied on in crafting the cartography, decisions about the 28-district map likely will not be settled soon.

Meanwhile, Florida’s qualification deadline for congressional candidates comes on June 17 at noon. Some Election Supervisors already filed briefs in state and federal court saying they need a map in place this month, and already it has reached the point where implementing a new map would require expensive additional staff resources.

Regardless, for the moment the Ansolabehere map now stands. And it will until and unless a court orders it should not.

Alternative map submission from Stephen Ansolabehere.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


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