House Democrats in the midst of dealing with the “chaos” created by new congressional maps created by a special master in New York have more reason to be unhappy today. In Florida, Democrats held a noisy but ultimately pointless protest last month against the adoption of GOP-favorable maps drawn up by Gov. DeSantis’ office. It seemed Democrats had finally caught a break earlier this month when a judge who reviewed those maps declared the changes in the norther part of the state to be unconstitutional.
Circuit Judge Layne Smith said, “I am finding the enacted map is unconstitutional because it diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect candidates of their choice.”
He ordered the state to adopt a map that maintains an east-to-west version of Jacksonville’s 5th Congressional District, stretching from Duval to Gadsden counties.
Specifically, the judge wanted to preserve the 5th district which is currently held by Rep. Al Lawson. But today that decision was reversed on appeal, meaning the state will now be returning to the maps approved by Gov. DeSantis.
The 1st District Court of appeals ruled Judge Layne Smith erred when he ordered a replacement map be used for the 2022 election. The latest order means the governor’s map is reinstated pending the outcome of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the map.
The DeSantis map would likely boost the number of Florida seats held by Republicans, while also making it difficult for Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson to maintain his seat in a north Florida district where nearly half the voters are Black. Another district that currently favors Black candidates is also redrawn in a way that would make it more difficult for them to win.
The Appeals Court decision can itself be appealed to Florida’s Supreme Court but the Associated Press notes that 3 of the 7 justices on that court were appointed by DeSantis. The Appeals Court also rejected a plan to substitute and expert’s map for Rep. Lawson’s district in north Florida while retaining the DeSantis approved map for the rest of the state.
The appeals court on Friday also expressed skepticism with Smith’s decision to replace the DeSantis map with one drawn by Harvard University professor Stephen Ansolabehere while the lawsuit proceeds. The court said there was a “high likelihood” that Smith’s decision was unlawful because “by awarding a preliminary remedy to the appellees’ on their claim, the order ‘frustrated the status quo, rather than preserved it.'”
The map drawn by Ansolabehere, a witness for the groups who are suing the state over the new boundaries, kept intact Lawson’s district while adopting the DeSantis-approved lines for districts south of the Panhandle…
DeSantis’ map that gives Republicans an advantage in 20 of 28 districts is back in place for the time being. The GOP currently holds a 16-11 advantage in Florida’s US House delegation. The state added a 28th district following the 2020 US census.
Democrats just can’t seem to catch a break. The maps they created in New York were clearly unconstitutional both because the goal was partisan and because the process mandated by the state constitution was abandoned. But in this case, the DeSantis map is also arguably unconstitutional because the Florida constitution has specifically adopted language from the federal Voting Rights Act.
A decade ago, Florida voters approved the Fair Districts amendments, which changed how the state redrew congressional and state legislative districts. One of the biggest changes those amendments made was incorporating the federal Voting Rights Act’s Section 2 and Section 5 language into the state constitution.
The Section 5 language bars the state from eliminating districts where voters from a minority group can elect candidates of their choice. DeSantis and his staff have argued that the standard violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause, something the U.S. Supreme Court has never held.
It’s worth noting that Judge Layne Smith, who initially ruled the map unconstitutional, is a DeSantis appointee. So just because DeSantis appointed half the judges on the state Supreme Court doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll agree with him on this. Whatever happens is going to have to happen pretty fast.
Time is becoming an issue for opponents of the map. County election supervisors have said that district boundaries must be finalized by the end of the month to prevent problems with the candidate qualifying period from June 13 to June 17.
We should know where this is headed in another week or two at most.
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