Florida’s supreme court has declined to hear a request to rule on whether the state’s new congressional map was unconstitutional, a decision that means it will probably be more difficult for Black voters in north Florida to elect their preferred candidates to represent them.
The state’s congressional map, drawn by Governor Ron DeSantis, dismantles the state’s fifth congressional district, which stretches from Jacksonville to Tallahassee and is 46% Black.
The district is currently represented by Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, but the new map chops up the district into four new districts, each with a much smaller population of Black voters that would lean towards Republicans.
Last month, a circuit court judge said the map violated the state’s constitution because “it diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect candidates of their choice” and ordered a new configuration of districts in northern Florida. An appeals court later paused that ruling and the supreme court, in a 4-1 decision, said it would not intervene in the case yet.
“They are losing representation that is so key and vital to the state where we are Blacker and browner. And we have a state that is hurling more racist and oppressive policies every single day,” said Jasmine Burney-Clark, the founder of Equal Ground, one of several civic engagement groups that challenged the maps. “Our only recourse against that is voting and they’re taking that away by diluting that power.”
DeSantis has railed against the current version of the fifth congressional district, saying that it was illegally drawn considering race. The map he drew would probably give Republicans an additional four seats in Congress, giving them a 20-8 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation.
Three of the four justices who joined Wednesday’s ruling were appointed by DeSantis. Two justices refused themselves. Justice Jorge Labarga wrote the court’s sole dissent, saying the court had the authority to intervene now because it was likely to do so in the future. At stake in the case, he said, were protections against gerrymandering that Florida voters overwhelmingly voted to add to the state constitution in 2010.
“They are making a decision not to move forward. As the dissent said, there’s a pathway,” said Cecile Scoon, the president of the Florida chapter of the League of Women Voters, which was also involved in the challenge to the map.
Part of that language makes it illegal to draw districts that “diminish” the ability of minority groups to elect their preferred candidates. DeSantis has brushed aside concerns that the map may violate the state constitution, saying that anti-gerrymandering language may wind up being struck down.
The supreme court’s decision also underscores how difficult it has been for voting rights groups to get courts to strike down maps ahead of the 2022 midterms. In Alabama, a three-judge panel issued an extensive decision in January explaining why the state’s congressional plan discriminated against Black voters and ordered it to come up with a new plan. But the US supreme court intervened and paused that ruling. While the full court didn’t explain its reasoning, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said it was too close to Alabama’s May primary to draw new maps, reasoning that was deeply specious because election day was months away at the time.
In Ohio, the state supreme court has rejected five different proposals for state legislative maps over the last several months, saying that they all violated the state’s constitution. But a federal court allowed one of those unconstitutional plans to go into effect for this fall’s elections, saying time was running out to get a map in place.
“Our supreme court has done exactly what our legislature just did. They abdicated their role of power and they left it in the hands of one man, and that’s our governor. They completely took away the checks and balances process that we have in this state,” Burney-Clark said.