The Florida Supreme Court won’t hear a challenge to Florida’s new congressional map before the Midterms.
The court announced on Thursday it has denied a request for a new hearing on redistricting. That means the final voice on the matter before the 2022 elections will be Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal, which last month stayed a circuit court decision to replace the map.
“The right to come before the high court “is restricted to preserving jurisdiction that has already been invoked or protecting jurisdiction that likely will be invoked in the future,” reads a disposition of the case.
Justice Jorge Labarga did offer a written dissent, where he cited the Fair Districts amendment and noted the fact an overwhelming majority of voters passed the language.
“Given this Court’s history of considering congressional redistricting cases, I cannot forecast that we will lack jurisdiction to review the district court’s merits decision,” Labarga wrote. “At stake here is the mandate of 62.9% of Florida voters who voted in 2010 for one of what are commonly known as the Fair Districts Amendments to the Florida Constitution—by any measure of comparison, 62.9% of the vote is an overwhelming margin.”
That means a map (P 0109) designed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and signed by the Governor will govern the 2022 elections. A lawsuit alleging the map violates the Fair Districts amendment to Florida’s Constitution by diminishing the ability of Black constituents to elect a Representative of their choice remains ongoing, but any impact will likely have to wait for a full trial to unfold, something that could take years.
The lawsuit, filed by Black Voters Matter and other minority advocacy groups, also alleges the Governor’s map unfairly benefits Republicans, another potential violation of Fair Districts. The map includes 20 congressional districts won by Republican Donald Trump in the last Presidential Election and just eight won by Democrat Joe Biden.
DeSantis Deputy Chief of Staff Alex Kelly submitted this map shortly before a Special Session on redistricting. It was the third one submitted by DeSantis’ Office, as the Governor involved himself more in the reapportionment process than any Florida Governor in history. The Special Session had to be called after DeSantis vetoed a map approved by the Legislature. The Governor complained that by preserving a minority access district in North Florida, lawmakers produced a map drawn with race as a predominant motivator in violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Lawmakers ultimately demurred to DeSantis when negotiations on cartography failed. Analysts in the Florida Senate and House had maintained minority access seats were protected by the state constitution, per a 2015 Florida Supreme Court ruling that enacted the map in place the last three election cycles. That ruling introduced the configuration of Florida’s 5th Congressional District, represented now by Tallahassee Democrat Al Lawson, that DeSantis wanted off the map.
Lawson criticized the Supreme Court for failing to take up the map before the mid-terms.
“The justices in the majority ducked their constitutional responsibility, relying on a ridiculous procedural argument to obtain the result they wanted, instead of addressing the merits of the case. I commend Justice Labarga for correctly calling out his colleagues for neglecting the duties entrusted to them by the people of Florida,” he said.
“Today’s decision is indeed disheartening. The fact that Ron DeSantis appointed three of the four justices who rubberstamped his map made this outcome predictable. This shameful decision by the Florida Supreme Court is further indication that our judiciary has become overly political and is no longer an independent branch of government as our founders intended.”
Of note, the 2015 high court decision came three years after the Legislature produced a map ultimately deemed to be wrongly influenced by partisan forces and which favored Republicans.
While that extended period meant Florida went through two election cycles on a map ultimately deemed unconstitutional, an appellate court suggested last month it’s important the legal process is not hijacked for expediency.
That decision came after Leon Circuit Judge Layne Smith had ordered the congressional map be replaced with one submitted by Harvard professor Stephen Ansolabehere that preserved a district analogous to the one represented now by Lawson.
“The issue is the Legislature’s compliance with the state constitution — not some run-of-the-mill executive branch planning decision,” Smith ordered.
Smith was originally appointed to the county bench by Gov. Rick Scott and later to his circuit court position by DeSantis, so that decision sent shockwaves through Florida — but only briefly.
Appellate Judge A.S. Tanenbaum later said Smith was wrong to fast-track a decision on the constitutionality of the map, even only in North Florida, and make such an impactful decision based on a three-hour hearing instead of a full trial. He ordered that a stay remain on Smith’s decision, and made clear the appellate court did not think enough deliberation occurred before the judge issued an injunction.
“A docket check reveals that the case still has not been set for trial. Indeed, there has been no activity in the circuit court since this appeal and the circuit court’s vacatur of the automatic stay,” Tanenbaum wrote. “This procedural dilatoriness under the circumstances highlights an extant misunderstanding about the limited role of a temporary injunction.”
The appellate court hasn’t formally overruled Smith’s injunction but Tanenbaum’s decision on the stay criticized the injunction and Smith’s solution of introducing a new map.
“In the order, the circuit court even acknowledges that it is crafting a remedy for the appellees until there can be a trial,” Tanenbaum wrote. “The grant of this provisional remedy, unmoored from an adjudication, was an unauthorized exercise of judicial discretion, making the temporary injunction unlawful on its face.”