Florida Appeals Court Upholds DeSantis-Drawn Congressional Map

Caden Pearson
By Caden Pearson
December 1, 2023Politics
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Florida Appeals Court Upholds DeSantis-Drawn Congressional Map
Florida governor and Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis speaks in the spin room following a debate held by Fox News, in Alpharetta, Ga., on Nov. 30, 2023. (Christian Monterrosa/AFP via Getty Images)

A Florida appeals court on Friday upheld the state’s congressional redistricting map advocated by Gov. Ron DeSantis, rejecting a lower court ruling that it was unconstitutional.

The 8–2 decision by Florida’s First District Court of Appeal reversed a lower court ruling in September, which found that the new map had improperly diluted black voting power.

The appeals court judges, in a main opinion and three concurring opinions, said the lower court misapplied precedent and that the “trial court should have dismissed the plaintiffs’ suit for lack of proof.”

Plaintiffs “failed to present any evidence” that the earlier version of the Fifth Congressional District, referred to as CD-5 in the ruling, contained a singular “geographically compact community” of minorities that would have a right to protection under Florida’s constitution, according to the ruling’s main opinion, written by Judges Adam Tanenbaum and Brad L. Thomas.

Furthermore, the appeals court’s main opinion admonishingly noted that the lower court “did not demand” the evidence to support the plaintiff’s claims.

“In fact, it erroneously allowed the parties to stipulate this threshold element out of existence. They instead simply relied on the mere existence of former CD-5 as a Black performing district as a basis for using it as a benchmark,” the appeals court’s main opinion states.

Critics of the state congressional map argue that it dismantled a historically “black-performing” district in the north of Florida by spreading black voters across four separate districts. The former district in question is home to black residents from Jacksonville to Tallahassee.

The seat was formerly held by Rep. Al Lawson, a black Democrat who lost a subsequent election to GOP Rep. Neal Dunn by 20 points after the new map was enacted.

The legal challenge centered around the Florida Constitution’s Fair Districts Amendments, passed in 2010 to restrict partisan gerrymandering. The amendment requires lawmakers to give minority communities an opportunity to “elect representatives of their choice.”

However, the appeals court’s main opinion found that there “was no evidentiary basis” for the lower court’s conclusion that the district “afforded a legally cognizable Black community” with the “voting power that it did not otherwise have.”

“The plaintiffs then failed to prove a proper benchmark or baseline from which to assess an alleged diminishment in voting power,” the ruling’s main opinion added.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Ross Bilbrey wrote that the district “was not just diminished—it was eliminated.”

“A politically cohesive racial minority is now denied the ability to elect a candidate of choice in a racially polarized district, showing that unconstitutional diminishment has occurred,” wrote Judge Bilbrey. He was joined in the dissent by Judge Susan Kelsey.

Judges Tanenbaum and B.L. Thomas, along with Judges Clay Roberts, Lori Rowe, Thomas Winokur, M. Kimmerly Thomas, and Robert Long, comprised the majority opinion. Chief Judge Timothy Osterhaus, Winokur, and Long authored concurring opinions. Judges Joseph Lewis, Stephanie Ray, and Rachel Nordby were recused from the case.

Genesis Robinson, a plaintiff in the case and political director for activist group Equal Ground, criticized the ruling, saying it “sets a dangerous precedent for the erosion of voting rights in Florida.”

Mr. Robinson alleged that Mr. DeSantis had manipulated the voting rights of black Floridians for political gain.

“When voters overwhelmingly passed the Fair District Amendments in 2010, this was the very type of political corruption and partisan favoritism they sought to rid from our state,” he added in a statement.

The legal battle stems from Mr. DeSantis’s proposal last year to redraw congressional maps, a process undertaken every 10 years, that faced challenges based on the Fair Districts Amendments. Critics argued that the new lines reduced the voting power of black residents in Jacksonville.

The appeals court’s decision upheld the DeSantis-drawn map, which redefined boundaries in Jacksonville and its southeastern suburbs, extending down the coast to St. Augustine.

The older version of the Fifth District map had a black population of about 46 percent, while the new district is 12.8 percent black.

Critics argue that this redistribution has resulted in fewer black voters in the affected area. Currently, Republicans hold 20 of Florida’s 28 seats in the House of Representatives under the map proposed by Mr. DeSantis.

The redrawing of congressional districts is typically linked to the census, which occurs every 10 years. The last significant revision was imposed by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015.

From The Epoch Times

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