Constitutional battle looms in Florida redistricting case

TALLAHASSEE — When Florida voters in 2010 approved a constitutional amendment establishing rules for congressional redistricting, they prohibited drawing lines that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to elect representatives of their choosing.

Now, more than a decade later, the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature are trying to avoid a lawsuit by arguing that the US Constitution trumps that part of the state amendment.

A Leon County circuit judge is due to hold a hearing soon on whether lawyers for Secretary of State Cord Byrd and the Legislature should be allowed to argue in a lawsuit challenging a redistricting plan DeSantis pushed through last year.

The lawsuit, brought by a coalition of voting rights groups and individual plaintiffs, focuses primarily on the 5th Congressional District, which once spanned northern Florida and helped elect black Democrat Al Lawson. But under the DeSantis-backed plan that lawmakers approved in April 2022, the district was drastically redrawn, ultimately leading white Republicans to win all of North Florida’s congressional seats in November.

The lawsuit alleges, in part, that the plan violates the 2010 Fair Districts constitutional amendment because it impaired the voting power of black residents of North Florida.

But attorneys for the state argue that applying the so-called “no diminution” standard of the Fair Districts amendment to the 5th Congressional District would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution. That reflects a position by the DeSantis administration last year that the Equal Protection Clause prevented the Legislature from using race as a “predominant factor” in drawing the district.

“When applying the [Fair Districts] provision in North Florida to draw an east-west minority-serving congressional district, or any other minority-serving district, race inherently predominates,” Byrd’s attorneys wrote in a Feb. 27 court filing. “Drawing electoral districts in this manner is not strictly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest.”

But in the lawsuit, lawyers for the plaintiffs criticized the arguments of DeSantis, who vetoed an initial congressional redistricting plan last year. The Republican-controlled Legislature then approved the DeSantis-backed plan.

“Both Governor DeSantis and the Legislature knew full well that dismantling CD-5 would diminish the voting power of Black residents of North Florida and violate the plain mandate of the Florida Constitution,” the attorneys wrote in a revised version. of the lawsuit filed on February 2. 8. “From the beginning, Governor DeSantis publicly stated that he would not accept any plan from Congress that contained a CD-5 configuration that would protect black voters in North Florida from decline.”

The June 5 hearing before Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh will focus on a legal question of whether Byrd and the Legislature should be able to argue that the disputed portion of the Fair Districts amendment is invalid. under the US Constitution

Attorneys for the plaintiffs contend that a legal concept known as the “permanent civil servant doctrine” prevents Byrd and the Legislature from challenging the constitutionality of a statutory duty.

“To be sure, the House and Senate may believe that the means by which the Florida Constitution assigns redistricting duty are unconstitutional, but that is a matter for the judiciary, not the Legislature, to decide on. first instance,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in an April 14 filing. “Allowing the House and Senate to defend their actions by stating that they have decided that parts of the Florida Constitution are unconstitutional would be giving the Legislature the power to choose which constitutional provisions it will follow.”

But lawyers for the House and Senate challenged those arguments.

“Plaintiffs’ motion upends public servant doctrine by seeking to bar the Legislature from upholding the constitutionality of Florida legislation adopting congressional districts against a constitutional challenge brought by plaintiffs,” attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote. the House and Senate in a May 5 filing. .