Federal Court Upholds Florida’s Congressional Map That Eliminated Historically-Black District

WASHINGTON, D.C. In a unanimous opinion handed down this evening, a federal three-judge panel upheld Florida’s congressional districts, rejecting a lawsuit from civil rights groups that alleged the map intentionally discriminates against Black voters in North Florida. 

The state’s congressional map — which was pushed through the Florida Legislature in April 2022 at the behest of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — eliminated the historically Black-performing 5th Congressional district covering Jacksonville and Tallahassee.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis leaves the site of an appearance, Thursday, May 6, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. DeSantis has signed a sweeping elections bill into law that he and other Republicans said would place guardrails against fraud, even though there were no signs of voter irregularities in the November presidential election. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

At a federal bench trial held last September, Common Cause Florida, FairDistricts Now, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and individual Florida voters urged the court to strike down the map for violating the 14th and 15th Amendments’ prohibition on intentional racial discrimination. 

In support of their claims, the plaintiffs pointed to the fact that the map deliberately “cracks” Black voters in the previously constructed 5th Congressional District across four majority-white districts. Prior to 2022, the 5th Congressional District saw three decades of Black representation, most recently by Rep. Al Lawson (D), who lost his bid for reelection in November 2022.  

Prior to today’s ruling, a Florida judge previously struck down the districts in an October 2023 opinion stemming from a state-level lawsuit brought by pro-voting groups. That ruling, which was appealed by state officials and later reversed by a state appeals court last December, held that the map violates the state constitution by diminishing Black voting power. The state-level case is now pending before the Florida Supreme Court.  

In today’s 103-page opinion, the three-judge panel composed of a W. Bush, Trump and Obama-appointee, concluded that the plaintiffs “have not proven that the Legislature acted with race as a motivating factor in passing the Enacted Map.” The ruling added that “[t]he plaintiffs freely concede there is no direct or circumstantial evidence of racially discriminatory purpose on the part of any member of the Florida Legislature.” 

According to the opinion, “even assuming that Governor DeSantis acted with some unlawful discriminatory motive in creating and proposing the redistricting map that was ultimately enacted into law,” the plaintiffs did not adequately demonstrate that the Legislature “had a similar motive in adopting and passing that map.”

In a concurring opinion, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Adalberto Jordan joined the two other members of the panel in full, but wrote separately “to explain why the evidence presented at trial convinces me that the Governor did, in fact, act with race as a motivating factor.” DeSantis was previously a defendant in the litigation, however the three-judge panel dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims against him in a November 2022 order, thus leaving Florida’s Republican secretary of state as the sole remaining defendant in the case.

In a statement issued the day after the ruling, Byrd praised the decision as a “vindication that Florida’s redistricting maps comply with Florida law and the U.S. Constitution,” and added, “We are very pleased with the outcome of this effort.”

Although today’s ruling marks the end of the federal legal challenge to Florida’s congressional map, the state-level case remains ongoing, and could provide Black Floridians with relief prior to the 2026 midterm elections. 

Read the opinion here.

Learn more about the case here.

This story was updated on Thursday, March 28 at 10:59 a.m. EDT to include a statement from Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd.