WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal issued an 8-2 decision reversing a ruling that struck down Florida’s congressional map for diminishing Black voting power in the northern part of the state.
This decision overturns a September 2023 ruling from Florida Judge Lee Marsh holding that the state’s congressional map — which was pushed through the Florida Legislature last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — violated the Florida Constitution by depriving Black Floridians of the opportunity to elect their candidate of choice.
The challenged DeSantis map dismantled North Florida’s historically Black-performing 5th Congressional District formerly represented by Rep. Al Lawson (D-Fla.) by spreading Black voters across four separate districts.
Today’s ruling stems from an appeal of a state-level lawsuit brought by Black Voters Matter and other organizations alleging that DeSantis’ congressional map violates the Florida Constitution’s Fair Districts Amendment by diminishing Black voting strength. Under the Fair Districts Amendment’s “non-diminishment standard,” districts cannot be drawn in a manner that “diminishes” the ability of minority voters to elect their preferred candidate.
Prior to the trial court’s decision striking down the map, the parties to the lawsuit — Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd (R), the Florida Legislature and the plaintiffs — reached an agreement in August stipulating that any appeal of the trial court’s ruling would bypass the 1st District Court of Appeal and instead go directly to the Florida Supreme Court.
However, in mid-September, the 1st District Court of Appeals issued an order stating that the entire court — known as the en banc court — would hear the appeal. Thirteen judges sit on the 1st District Court of Appeal, 11 of whom were appointed by Republican governors. Three of the court’s Republican-appointed judges recused themselves from the case, and the remaining 11 judges heard oral argument in the state’s appeal on Oct. 31.
In today’s opinion overturning Marsh’s September ruling, the majority held that the plaintiffs failed to prove their alleged diminishment of Black voting power. Citing a set of preconditions used in cases involving the federal Voting Rights Acts (VRA) — a statute that is distinct from Florida’s Fair Districts Amendment — the opinion asserted that Black voters would have needed to demonstrate that they can constitute a majority in a single “geographically compact community” as a prerequisite to proving that their voting power was diminished.
In his now-overturned opinion, Marsh specifically rebuffed this argument, explaining that the three-part legal test for non-diminishment under the Florida Constitution is “plainly different” from the test that is utilized in federal VRA cases.
The majority opinion further asserted that the “plaintiffs did not submit any evidence regarding the existence of naturally occurring (rather than court-manufactured) Black communities within the former [5th Congressional District].”
Despite the 5th Congressional District’s longstanding history of Black voting power, the majority opinion brazenly stated that “[n]othing in the record describes who the Black voters are as members of a meaningful community —nothing about a shared history or shared socio-economic experience among the Black voters in Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and other areas throughout the expanse of former [5th Congressional District].”
In a joint stipulation filed in September, the plaintiffs and defendants agreed that either party would appeal the 1st District Court of Appeal’s decision to the Florida Supreme Court. The stipulation notes that review of the case by the state Supreme Court would need to be resolved prior to the Legislature’s adjournment on March 8, 2024 to ensure that the Legislature would have time to draw a remedial map if necessary.
Accordingly, the plaintiffs are expected to appeal today’s decision to the Florida Supreme Court, which — if it accepts the appeal — will resolve the lawsuit by early March.