The Florida First District Court of Appeal reversed a lower court ruling and upheld a congressional map signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
A majority of appellate judges struck down a September ruling by Leon Circuit Judge Lee Marsh that the congressional map effectively diminished the ability of minority communities to elect a congressional representative of their choice in North Florida by dismantling a district that spanned from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, covering a number of historically Black communities. Marsh said that violated the Fair Districts amendment in Florida’s constitution approved by voters in 2010.
But appellate judges question both the way the case proceeded through Marsh’s court and his ultimate finding.
“The plaintiffs did not submit any evidence regarding the existence of naturally occurring (rather than court-manufactured) Black communities within the former CD-5,” reads a majority ruling 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.”
The court ruling likely isn’t the final word on the matter, as minority advocates who sued the state’s cartography are certain to appeal the matter to Florida’s Supreme Court.
But while Marsh’s ruling set up a scenario where Florida lawmakers would need to draw new maps adhering to the court directive, this ruling means the map will stand unless a higher court states otherwise.
This map was drawn by DeSantis’ staff after the Republican Governor vetoed maps approved by the Legislature that attempted to preserve a Black-performing district in the Jacksonville area, and offered a map largely preserving the old make-up of Florida’s 5th Congressional District in case courts deemed that primary proposal as a violation of the Fair Districts amendment.
DeSantis has argued the prior North Florida district was a gerrymander that violated the U.S. constitution’s equal protection clause because it was drawn with race as the primary motivation.
But critics said this interpretation turns that constitutional protection, intended to protect racial minorities in the aftermath of the Civil War, on its head.
Common Cause Florida immediately criticized the appellate court ruling upholding the map and overturning the lower court interpretation of the law.
“This decision blatantly ignores the will of Florida voters who—more than a decade ago—demanded Fair Districts that protect representation for communities of color,” said Amy Keith, Common Cause Florida executive director. “The Fair Districts Amendments were designed to stop the kind of gerrymandering the court has green lighted today. The decision goes against the will of the voters of Florida and their right to fair maps.
“We are deeply disappointed by today’s state court decision, and we want Florida voters to know there is still hope for a fair congressional map that protects the rights of Black voters. Common Cause and our partners took the DeSantis Administration to federal court to hold them accountable for intentionally drawing discriminatory maps in Common Cause Florida v. Byrd and we are still waiting for a decision.
“Our work is not done until all voters can exercise their right to fair representation.”
Sen. Tracie Davis also condemns the ruling as a “disservice to the people of Jacksonville.”
“The unprecedented interference by the Governor in submitting these maps to the state has made this a tainted, ruined process from the beginning, and it is at the cost of my constituents and my community. Protected districts were created to give minority voters the chance to have a representative that looks like them and represents their interests, and that chance has been unceremoniously stripped by the Legislature and the courts. Floridians deserve better than clear partisan gerrymanders and packed courts.”
Two judges joined a dissent to the majority opinion, saying the interpretation ignores prior rulings by the Florida Supreme Court.
“And there are or can be alternatives to the current districts, including two plans the Legislature already passed, that are constitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution,” wrote Judge Ross Bilbrey in the dissent.