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Florida appeals court rejects injunction in redistricting fight

TALLAHASSEE  - An appeals court Friday tossed out a temporary injunction that would have blocked the use of a congressional redistricting plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in April.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal was expected: The panel had earlier placed a stay on the temporary injunction, describing it as "patently unlawful."

Friday's decision also came on the final day of a formal qualifying period for this year's elections. 

Candidates qualified under the DeSantis-backed plan, which could increase the number of Republicans in the state's congressional delegation from 16 to 20, based on past voting patterns.

The panel of the Tallahassee-based appeals court overturned a temporary injunction issued May 12 by Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith, who also called for using a different congressional map.

"We conclude that the trial court abused its discretion when it rendered the temporary injunction order." the four-page ruling by appeals-court Judges Harvey Jay, M. Kemmerly Thomas and Adam Tanenbaum said. 

"It is an unauthorized order and legally cannot remain in place."

Voting-rights groups and other plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in April after DeSantis muscled the plan through the Legislature as part of the once-a-decade reapportionment process.

The case centers on Congressional District 5, which in recent years has been a sprawling North Florida district drawn to help elect a Black member of Congress. 

DeSantis argued that continuing with such a district would involve racial gerrymandering and violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Legislature approved DeSantis' proposal to revamp the district, condensing it in the Jacksonville area. 

But Smith ruled the plan violated a 2010 state constitutional amendment — known as the Fair Districts amendment — that barred diminishing the ability of minority voters to "elect representatives of their choice."

Smith's temporary injunction ordered use of a map that would have kept the sprawling shape of the district, which stretches from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee. Using that map also would have affected some other districts.

But the appeals court last month placed a stay on the temporary injunction, and Friday's ruling largely cited that decision.

"The temporary injunction before us on appeal does not just return the parties to the condition that existed before the subject matter at the center of the present controversy arose, i.e., before SB 2-C (the DeSantis-backed plan) became law," Tanenbaum wrote May 27 in explaining the stay. "The order does much more. It gives the appellees (the voting-rights groups and other plaintiffs) affirmative relief by requiring the secretary (of state) to conduct the 2022 congressional elections under an entirely new, unenacted plan recently proposed by the appellees during the nascent litigation. In the order, the circuit court even acknowledges that it is crafting a remedy for the appellees until there can be a trial. 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."

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, has represented the sprawling District 5 since 2016. 

But he qualified this week to run against Republican incumbent Neal Dunn in Congressional District 2, another North Florida district.

While the appeals court rejected the temporary injunction, the underlying lawsuit challenging the redistricting plan remains pending in circuit court. Also, a separate challenge is pending in federal court.

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