Florida judge skeptical of arguments to keep DeSantis’ congressional map

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The fate of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial congressional map is now with a circuit judge who, on Thursday, repeatedly pressed attorneys representing the state’s top elections official and the Republican-controlled Legislature on the map’s validity.

The roughly four-hour hearing, stemming from a legal challenge to the redrawn districts, centered on the map pushed by the governor that dismantled a roughly 200-mile seat that connected minority voters in Tallahassee and Jacksonville and had been held by former Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat who lost last year after his seat was redrawn. Florida Republicans ultimately picked up four seats under the governor’s map for a total of 20 out of 28, a move that helped the GOP capture the U.S. House last year.

Lawyers for the Legislature and the DeSantis administration contended they replaced Lawson’s seat with a “race neutral” one and that to revert back to the way the seat was once drawn would violate the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause — a conclusion that has been undercut by the Supreme Court’s recent decision on an Alabama redistricting case.

“The Legislature made the right judgment, and the court should validate that judgment,” said Andy Bardos, an attorney representing the Florida House.

The voting rights and civil rights groups that sued over the map say the overhaul pushed by the governor violated Florida’s voter approved redistricting standards designed to protect minority voters. Abha Khanna, an attorney from the Elias law firm, said lawyers for the state had turned a “straight forward claim by Florida voters … into an affirmative assault on the constitution itself.”

“This court should have none of it,” Khanna said.

Circuit Judge Lee Marsh, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Rick Scott, sounded skeptical at times over the arguments coming from lawyers hired to defend the current map. He pointed out repeatedly that the Lawson seat was drawn up by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015.

“I’m not going there,” Marsh said at one memorable point. “I don’t think I have the power to say — you know what? The Florida Supreme Court got it wrong. That’s their business.”

The back-and-forth reflected the twisted path that led to the courtroom confrontation. Republican legislators initially had proposed keeping intact Lawson’s seat — but then under pressure from the governor — offered to nix the seat in exchange for a Jacksonville-based seat that still contained a substantial number of minority voters. They called the governor’s arguments against retaining the seat a “novel legal theory.”

But then, lawmakers retreated from that position after DeSantis vetoed that map and instead approved one drawn up by the governor’s office.

Florida’s Fair Districts provision, approved in 2010, states that congressional districts cannot be drawn in a way that would “diminish” minority voters ability to elect someone of their choice. Lawyers for the Legislature and the Secretary of State Cord Byrd contended on Thursday that legislators couldn’t follow the “non-diminishment” requirement without running afoul of the U.S. Constitution, which has more authority over state law.

But during his exchanges with lawyers, Marsh openly questioned whether there was enough evidence in the record to show that they had tried to come up with an alternative solution. He also said several times that this was “step one” and that he could rule that the map violates Florida’s Constitution and that it is up to legislators to figure out what to do next.

Florida picked up one congressional seat in 2022 due to population growth for a total of 28. A coalition of groups, including Black Voters Matter, Equal Ground, Florida Rising and the League of Women Voters of Florida, sued Florida over the congressional maps in April 2022, the day the governor signed them into law.

The groups and the state were scheduled to go to trial this month, with proceedings expected to last nearly two weeks. But lawyers for the plaintiffs, along with the DeSantis administration and the Legislature, came up with an agreement that narrowed the scope of the lawsuit. That agreement resulted in plaintiffs dropping legal challenges against other revamped districts that were changed in central Florida and the Tampa Bay area.

The stipulation reached by both sides states that if the groups challenging the map win their legal battle over the north Florida seat, an “appropriate remedy” would be to draw a seat that includes Black communities in Jacksonville, with those in Tallahassee and in Gadsden County west of the state capital.

Marsh did not rule from the bench, but he did suggest a timeline that could lead to a ruling coming as soon as late next week.

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