Federal lawsuit challenges Florida Senate map

Plaintiffs say the Legislature wrongly packed Black voters into a Tampa Bay-spanning district.

Tampa Bay residents have filed a federal lawsuit to overturn Florida’s state Senate map.

Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and firms specializing in civil rights filed a suit on behalf of five residents. A 31-page complaint, first reported by The Tributary, alleges that the Legislature illegally packed Black voters into a single Hillsborough-Pinellas County district at the expense of Black voters left at a disadvantage in neighboring seats.

“The State could have drawn these districts to both avoid the diminishment of Black voting power and respect traditional redistricting criteria,” the lawsuit says. “Instead, the State engaged in racial gerrymandering that unconstitutionally abridges Plaintiffs’ rights to the equal protection of the laws.”

The Legislature in 2022 approved new lines (S 8058) as part of a once-a-decade redistricting required after the U.S. Census. The Senate led the effort to redraw political boundaries for Florida’s 40 Senate districts.

The lawsuit deals chiefly with two districts: Senate District 16 and Senate District 18. Those are represented now respectively by Sens. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, and Nick DiCeglie, a Belleair Bluffs Republican.

Rouson’s district spans across Tampa Bay, connecting Black residents in south Pinellas County and Hillsborough County, ultimately putting more than half of Black residents in the two-county area into SD 16.

“As a result, adjacent District 18 is artificially stripped of Black residents, diminishing their influence and voice in elections there,” the lawsuit contends.

Senate President Pro Tempore Dennis Baxley issued a memo challenging the lawsuit’s merit. He also questioning the timing of the suit, which lists Senate President Kathleen Passidomo as a defendant in her official capacity.

“It defies reasonable understanding and basic human decency that after more than two years and approval by the Florida Supreme Court, the plaintiffs have chosen the days following the tragic and sudden passing of the First Gentleman of the Florida Senate, even prior to the funeral, to bring forward a lawsuit against President Passidomo that is not time sensitive,” Baxley wrote.

He also said the map was approved unanimously. Of note, while the final bill (SJR 100) reapportioning both chambers of the Legislature was approved on a 37-0 vote, the Senate map when it was voted on independently in the chamber was approved on a 34-3 vote, with Democratic then-Sens. Gary FarmerAudrey Gibson and Victor Torres voting “no.”

Of note, Rouson missed the vote because he was diagnosed with COVID-19 at the time. DiCeglie was not a member of the Senate, but did vote as a Representative to approve the maps when they were before the House.

Attorneys for plaintiffs say if the court were to strike down the challenged districts, the Legislature would have an opportunity to redraw the map and submit that proposed remedy to the court. The lawsuit lays out a redraw of the two challenged districts as relief.

Plaintiffs do propose a map that has no Senate district spanning the Bay and that offers little disruption to most other districts in the state.

The demonstration map would have SD 18’s southern borders expanded to cover all of south Pinellas, while the district’s northern border would move south to Bay Drive, and all the way to Walsingham Road west of U.S. 19.

As for SD 16, the entire Pinellas portion west of the Bay would be lost, and the district would instead pick up territory south to the Little Manatee River, including parts of Ruskin.

The changes would necessitate changes in three other neighboring districts, Senate Districts 20, 21 and 23. Those are all represented now by Republicans: Sens. Jim Boyd, Ed Hooper and Danny Burgess, respectively. Notably, Senate District 14, represented by Republican Sen. Jay Collins, would be unchanged on this map.

Plaintiffs hope for the case to be resolved before the 2026 election cycle, the next time SD 16 and 18 are up for re-election. That’s the next time SD 20 is set for a vote as well.

The lawsuit calls for Special Elections to be held, if necessary, in any district not up for re-election in the same election cycle as the ruling. That’s similar to what happened when the Florida Supreme Court in 2016 struck down a map drawn by the Legislature.

That year, the high court threw out the entire Senate map. Plaintiffs in the case only want courts to remedy problems with Tampa Bay districts, and any ruling would not impact districts left intact in other parts of the state.

Existing Senate map in Tampa Bay.
Demonstration map offered by plaintiffs in federal challenge.

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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