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Florida's redistricting fight continues in federal court

CBS News Live
CBS News Miami Live

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration is trying to use a state appeals court's ruling to help bolster its defense of a congressional redistricting plan in federal court.

Attorneys for Secretary of State Cord Byrd quickly filed a notice Monday in U.S. district court after the state's 1st District Court of Appeal on Friday upheld the constitutionality of the redistricting plan.

Voting rights groups are challenging the redistricting plan in separate lawsuits in state and federal courts. The cases involve different legal issues, but both focus on an overhaul of North Florida's Congressional District 5, which in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson.

The plan, pushed through the Legislature by DeSantis, resulted in white Republicans winning all North Florida congressional seats in the November 2022 elections. District 5 in the past stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, picking up areas with significant Black populations; the overhauled district is in the Jacksonville area.

A three-judge panel of federal judges is weighing plaintiffs' arguments that the overhaul was unconstitutionally motivated, at least in part, by racial discrimination. But in the notice filed Monday, the state's attorneys tried to use the 1st District Court of Appeal ruling to dispel that argument.

"It's been plaintiffs' position that the governor's defense of the enacted map, specifically the configuration of North Florida, relied on 'arguments that' were 'made up, that just' weren't 'factually supported or legally supported,' thereby suggesting a pretext for race discrimination by the governor and the Florida Legislature," the notice said, partially quoting positions taken by plaintiffs. "But Florida's First District has now upheld the enacted map, and specifically the configuration of North Florida."

The federal panel held a trial in late September and early October on the plaintiffs' arguments that the overhaul of District 5 violated the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment. The 14th Amendment ensures equal protection, while the 15th Amendment prohibits denying or abridging the right to vote based on race. The panel has not issued a ruling.

The state case, meanwhile, focuses on whether the redistricting plan violates a 2010 state constitutional amendment, known as the Fair Districts Amendment, which set standards for redistricting. Part of that amendment barred drawing districts that would "diminish" the ability of minorities to "elect representatives of their choice."

The 1st District Court of Appeal on Friday overturned a Leon County circuit judge's ruling that the redistricting plan violated the so-called "non-diminishment" standard. Plaintiffs, including groups such as the League of Women Voters of Florida and Equal Ground Education Fund, have given notice that they will challenge Friday's ruling at the Florida Supreme Court.

While the legal issues in the state and federal cases are different, both have involved questions about the sprawling nature of the former District 5. DeSantis argued that keeping such a sprawling shape would constitute racial gerrymandering that would violate the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

The 1st District Court of Appeal's main opinion said the protection offered by the non-diminishment standard in the Florida Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act "is of the voting power of 'a politically cohesive, geographically insular minority group.'" It said linking voters across a large stretch of North Florida did not meet such a definition of cohesiveness.

"Without common interests and a shared history and socioeconomic experience, it is not a community that can give rise to a cognizable right protected by the FDA (Fair Districts Amendment)," the opinion said. "In other words, it is the community that must have the power, not a district manufactured for the sole purpose of creating voting power."

The state's attorneys also have raised the shape of the former district as they defend the overhaul in federal court - and dispute that the new map was motivated by racial discrimination.

"The result (of the overhaul) was a race-neutral map that prioritized traditional redistricting criteria like compactness and adherence to geographic and political boundaries," the state's attorneys wrote in a Nov. 3 federal-court filing. "And gone was the district in North Florida where over 80% of the population came from only two counties (Duval and Leon) at the extreme eastern and western edges of the district, separated by hundreds of miles, and connected by a narrow land bridge. Plaintiffs fault the enacted map for its failure to string together faraway population centers."

But in another Nov. 3 filing, attorneys for plaintiffs such as Common Cause and the NAACP, argued that voters in the former District 5 had a series of commonalities, saying that on "average, they were younger, had lower educational attainment, experienced a higher rate of poverty and had lower household incomes than the median Floridian."

"The only common throughline that explains all of the governor's actions was the goal of eliminating a Black opportunity district in North Florida for its own sake," the plaintiffs' attorneys wrote. "Defendant has not yet articulated, and cannot articulate, another theory that successfully explains this otherwise inexplicable series of events."

The plaintiffs are asking the federal panel to order the Legislature to draw a new redistricting plan. Unlike other types of federal cases presided over by a district judge, redistricting cases use panels of judges.

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