WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Saturday, Sept. 2, Florida Judge Lee Marsh struck down the state’s congressional map, holding that it violates the state constitution by denying Black Floridians the opportunity to elect their candidate of choice in North Florida.
The congressional map — which was pushed through the Florida Legislature last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — dismantled the state’s historically Black-performing 5th Congressional District formerly represented by Rep. Al Lawson (D-Fla.). The DeSantis map eliminated the former configuration of North Florida’s 5th Congressional District by spreading Black voters across four separate districts.
Saturday’s order stems from a state-level lawsuit, Black Voters Matter v. Byrd, alleging that Florida’s congressional map violates the state constitution’s Fair Districts Amendment by diminishing the ability of Black voters to elect their candidates of choice. 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.
In advance of a trial on the merits of the case that was scheduled for late August, the parties entered an agreement that narrowed the scope of the plaintiffs’ claims to exclusively focus on the diminishment of Black voting power in North Florida. In his order ruling in favor of the pro-voting groups who brought the lawsuit, Marsh held that the “[p]laintiffs have shown that the Enacted Plan results in the diminishment of Black voters’ ability to elect their candidate of choice in violation of the Florida Constitution.” Marsh added that “[a]t the hearing on the parties’ outstanding legal issues, Defendants Florida House and Florida Senate conceded as much.”
In addition to striking down the map, Marsh rejected an argument advanced by the Florida secretary of state, who asserted that the plaintiffs had to satisfy certain preconditions used in some federal redistricting cases for the Florida Constitution’s non-diminishment standard to apply. “[T]he Secretary’s arguments have no basis under either federal precedent or Florida Supreme Court precedent,” Marsh wrote.
Finally, Marsh rebuffed the Florida House, Senate and secretary of state’s argument that the Florida Constitution’s “non-diminishment” provision violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by requiring the “Defendants to implement a racial gerrymander.” According to Marsh’s order, the “Defendants have not proved that race predominated in the drawing of the district…Defendants’ racial gerrymandering affirmative defense thus fails at every level, for multiple, independent reasons.” Accordingly, Marsh reaffirmed the constitutionality of the Fair Districts Amendment’s protection for minority voters, finding that it “is justified by a compelling state interest in rooting out persistent discrimination in the state.”
On Sept. 4, two days after Marsh’s ruling, the defendants appealed this voting rights victory, resulting in an automatic pause of the trial court’s order pending further review. If accepted for review, the appeal will ultimately be decided by the Florida Supreme Court on an expedited schedule per the agreement reached by the parties on Aug. 11.
The agreement notes that if the Florida Supreme Court agrees to hear the appeal, it must issue a decision by Dec. 31, 2023 in order to provide enough time for the Florida Legislature to adopt a new map if necessary during its 2024 legislative session, which begins on Jan. 9, 2024.