A state judge said Gov. Ron DeSantis’ congressional map that eliminated a Black district in North Florida was unconstitutional and ordered the old boundaries restored.
Leon Circuit Judge Layne Smith, whom DeSantis appointed in 2020, said from the bench Wednesday that while he couldn’t rule on whether the map violated the federal Voting Rights Act, he had determined it did violate the Florida Constitution’s Fair District amendment approved by the voters.
“I am finding that the enacted map is unconstitutional under the Fair Districts amendment … because it diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect the representative of their choice,” Smith said during a virtual hearing.
But, he said, “I’m not going to order the Legislature to go back in session [to fix it]. I don’t really think that’s up to me.”
Smith said he would issue a written order by Thursday to impose the plaintiffs’ proposed Map A, which largely returns District 5 to what it looked like before this year. The seat is held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee.
The decision is a major blow to DeSantis’ argument that the district his lawyers redrew was an “unconstitutional gerrymander.”
DeSantis’ spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said the governor would quickly appeal to the state Supreme Court, with just a month left until qualifying for congressional seats begins.
Smith’s order also affects Districts 2, 3 and 4, which would largely revert to their previous lines, and alters part of the new District 6, all in North Florida.
The narrow ruling does not affect Central Florida’s District 10, currently held by U.S. Rep. Val Demings. It was redrawn in the new map from a Black district to a plurality white one.
Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, wrote on Twitter that it was possible that the higher courts could find it was too close to elections to make any changes to the map, which has happened elsewhere in the country.
“Plaintiffs will have to hope the court doesn’t delay to give DeSantis a fait accompli for 2022,” McDonald wrote.
Smith said it was possible that the case could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
McDonald said if that happens, the high court’s recent hostility to the Voting Rights Act could endanger even Fair Districts in Florida.
“It could be the U.S. Supreme Court finds Florida’s constitution invalid,” McDonald said.
In summing up his finding, Smith cited a map showing that the Black populations spread out North Florida date back to “the plantations, if you go back into slavery, leading up to now [and] the dispersion of African Americans in the communities.”
He said he would not overrule the state Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that found the map approved by the Legislature a decade ago unconstitutional and created District 5.
“I am not going to disagree on them with what they did or how they came about it or whether it passed muster, because I believe they had made that determination,” Smith said.
Democrats immediately praised the decision.
State Rep. Angie Nixon of Jacksonville, one of the leaders who organized the House floor protest, tweeted, “This ruling affirms that every Floridian, no matter our background or where we’re from, deserves to be the hero of our own story by using our vote to elect those who share our values and protect our interests. Black political power is EVERYTHING!”
State Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, the ranking member of the House Redistricting Committee, wrote in a statement, “While this isn’t the final opinion, we have to continue advocating for a constitutionally compliant Congressional map that does not infringe on Floridians’ rights.”
Representatives of House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson said the GOP leaders would not comment on pending litigation.
Fenske cited Smith’s comments about higher courts.
“As Judge Smith implied, these complex constitutional matters of law were always going to be decided at the appellate level,” Fenske said. “We will undoubtedly be appealing his ruling and are confident the constitutional map enacted by the Florida Legislature and signed into law passes legal muster. We look forward to defending it.”
The injunction is just the latest twist in Florida’s redistricting process.
The GOP-controlled state Senate had originally approved a map keeping District 5 mostly the same. It was a Black access district under the Voting Rights Act stretching from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. But in an unprecedented move, DeSantis inserted himself into the process by proposing his own map eliminating it and redrawing District 10 to become whiter.
The GOP-controlled House passed a map that addressed DeSantis’ “gerrymander” complaint by creating a district located entirely within the boundaries of Duval County. That map was also approved by the Senate.
But the new district still leaned Democratic. DeSantis, who had come under pressure from conservatives pushing for a much more Republican map, vetoed that map and called a special session of the Legislature.
Republican lawmakers ultimately conceded to DeSantis and passed his map, but not before the vote was delayed by a sit-in protest of Black lawmakers.
DeSantis’ map gave Republicans a 20-8 advantage in seats over Democrats compared to the current 16-11 GOP advantage, with a new 28th seat added because of the state’s population growth. Smith’s order would still give the GOP a 19-9 advantage even if District 5 reverts to its original lines.