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Federal judges uphold DeSantis’ redistricting plan

TALLAHASSEE — A three-judge federal panel Wednesday rejected a constitutional challenge to a congressional redistricting plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in 2022, saying opponents did not prove lawmakers acted with “racially discriminatory purpose.”

The decision was the second time in less than four months that courts have upheld the map in cases focused on the overhaul of a North Florida district that in the past elected a Black Democrat. The state’s 1st District Court of Appeal on Dec. 1 backed the plan — a decision that has been appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.

The federal-court lawsuit, filed by plaintiffs such as Common Cause Florida and the Florida NAACP, alleged that the map involved intentional discrimination and violated the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment. The 14th Amendment ensures equal protection, while the 15th Amendment prohibits denying or abridging the right to vote based on race.

But Wednesday’s opinion shared by Judges Adalberto Jordan, Casey Rodgers and Allen Winsor said the plaintiffs had not met a key test of showing that the Legislature acted with racial motivation.

“There are two relevant state actors in this case — the Florida Legislature, which passed the enacted map, and the governor, who proposed, pushed for, and signed the enacted map into law,” the opinion said. “It is not enough for the plaintiffs to show that the governor was motivated in part by racial animus, which we will assume without deciding for purposes of our decision. Rather, they also must prove that the Florida Legislature itself acted with some discriminatory purpose when adopting and passing the enacted map. This they have not done.”

The opinion said the “plaintiffs freely concede there is no direct or circumstantial evidence of racially discriminatory purpose on the part of any member of the Florida Legislature.”

“A public and collective decision-making body, like the Florida Legislature, is answerable only for its own unconstitutional actions and motivations,” the 58-page opinion said. “The unlawful motivations of others — whether constituents, the governor, or even a single member of the body itself — do not become those of the decision-making body as a whole unless it is shown that a majority of the body’s members shared and purposefully adopted (i.e., ratified) the motivations.”

But Jordan and Winsor, in concurring opinions, took opposing stances on whether DeSantis had racial motivations. Unlike ordinary federal-court cases, three-judge federal panels hear redistricting cases.

Jordan, a judge on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote that “the evidence presented at trial convinces me that the governor did, in fact, act with race as a motivating factor.”

“I do not think that Governor DeSantis harbors personal racial animus toward Black voters,” Jordan wrote. “But I do believe that he used race impermissibly as a means to achieve ends (including partisan advantage) that he cannot admit to.”

Florida urges Supreme Court to decline challenge to voting redistricting plan

Winsor, a district judge, disagreed with Jordan and wrote that the plaintiffs did not provide discriminatory purpose by the Legislature or DeSantis.

“Florida governors, like United States presidents, routinely use their legislative authority to advance their policy goals, just as legislators do.” Winsor wrote. “Plaintiffs call the governor’s insistence here ‘bull(ying) the Legislature.’ Others might call it exercising political will. But one shouldn’t call it racist.”

The North Florida district, Congressional District 5, in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson. The former configuration of the district stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, and incorporated areas with sizable numbers of Black voters.

DeSantis vetoed a redistricting plan passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and muscled through a replacement that placed District 5 in the Jacksonville area. White Republicans won all North Florida congressional seats in the November 2022 elections.

DeSantis argued that keeping a district similar to the former shape of Congressional District 5 would be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.

The three-judge federal panel held a trial in September and October. Meanwhile, a separate case was playing out in state courts. That case focuses on a 2010 state constitutional amendment, known as the Fair Districts amendment, that prohibited drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.”

Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh agreed with voting-rights groups that the redistricting plan violated the Fair Districts amendment. But the 1st District Court of Appeal rejected that decision in December, citing the sprawling shape of the district that elected Lawson.

The appeals court’s main opinion said protection offered under the non-diminishment clause and under the federal Voting Rights Act “is of the voting power of ‘a politically cohesive, geographically insular minority group.’” It said linking voters across a large stretch of North Florida did not meet such a definition of cohesiveness.

The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by voting-rights groups, though it has not scheduled arguments. As a result, the 2022 congressional map will remain in place for this year’s elections.

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