Appeals court says trial judge overstepped in ruling on DeSantis’ redistricting map

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
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An appeals court Friday said a circuit judge issued a “patently unlawful” temporary injunction against a congressional redistricting plan pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Ron DeSantis, giving another sign that the controversial plan likely will be used in this year’s elections.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal issued a 20-page ruling that explained its reasons last week for putting a stay on the temporary injunction. Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith issued the temporary injunction May 12, siding with voting-rights groups that challenged the constitutionality of the redistricting plan.

While Friday’s ruling stemmed from the stay, the appellate panel sharply criticized the temporary injunction, which also directed the use of a different congressional map.

“The temporary injunction before us on appeal does not just return the parties to the condition that existed before the subject matter at the center of the present controversy arose, i.e., before SB 2-C [the DeSantis-backed plan] became law,” said the ruling, written by Judge Adam Tanenbaum and joined by Judges Harvey Jay and M. Kemmerly Thomas. “The order does much more. It gives the appellees [the voting-rights groups and other plaintiffs] affirmative relief by requiring the secretary to conduct the 2022 congressional elections under an entirely new, unenacted plan recently proposed by the appellees during the nascent litigation. In the order, the circuit court even acknowledges that it is crafting a remedy for the appellees until there can be a trial. The grant of this provisional remedy, unmoored from an adjudication, was an unauthorized exercise of judicial discretion, making the temporary injunction unlawful on its face.”

The ruling also said a “temporary injunction is not a vehicle by which to procure a provisional remedy, nor is it a procedural tool by which to fast-track some burning constitutional question for appellate consideration in advance of trial.”

“There has been no trial or final evidentiary hearing, no final adjudication of the facts, and no declaratory judgment,” the ruling said. “The pleadings have not closed, the state parties have not answered, and no one has stepped forward to set the matter for trial. Nevertheless, it seems as if the determination of the temporary injunction motion is being treated as if it is the determination on the merits. Yet, it is not. It cannot be. The object of a hearing on a motion for temporary injunction is drastically different than the object of a final evidentiary hearing.”

The appeals court last week issued a four-paragraph order to put on hold the temporary injunction but did not give a full explanation. That prompted the plaintiffs to ask the Supreme Court to place a stay on the appeals court’s ruling. The Supreme Court has not ruled on that request.

The case centers on Congressional District 5, a sprawling North Florida district that was drawn in the past to help elect a Black member of Congress. DeSantis argued that continuing with such a district would involve racial gerrymandering and violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Legislature approved DeSantis’ proposal to revamp the district, condensing it in the Jacksonville area. But Smith ruled that the plan violated a 2010 state constitutional amendment — known as the Fair Districts amendment — that barred diminishing the ability of minority voters to “elect representatives of their choice.”

The overall redistricting plan passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature is expected to increase the number of GOP members of the state’s congressional delegation from 16 to 20, based on past voting patterns. District 5 is currently held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, but the revamped district likely would flip to Republicans.

Smith’s temporary injunction ordered use of a map that would keep the current sprawling shape of the district, which stretches from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee. Using that map also would affect some other districts.

Smith, who was appointed as a circuit judge by DeSantis, wrote that the plaintiffs had shown a “substantial likelihood of proving that the enacted plan [passed by the Legislature] violates the non-diminishment standard” of the Fair Districts amendment.