Appeals court sides with DeSantis congressional map erasing seat held by Black Democrat

Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, speaks to a crowd in opposition of Gov. Ron DeSantis' proposed congressional redistricting map that is being taken up by lawmakers during a special session Tuesday, April 19, 2022.
Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, speaks to a crowd in opposition of Gov. Ron DeSantis' proposed congressional redistricting map that is being taken up by lawmakers during a special session Tuesday, April 19, 2022.
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A state appeals court sided with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ redrawing of the state’s congressional boundaries that helped Republicans gain seats and eliminated a longtime North Florida district represented by a Black Democrat.

The ruling Friday by the 1st District Court of Appeal, whose members were all appointed by Republican governors, is expected to go next to the Florida Supreme Court. But it marks a setback in a long fight to overturn the map by plaintiffs, who include Black Voters Matter and the Florida League of Women Voters.

At the heart of the case was a Tallahassee-to-Jacksonville district held from 2017-23 by Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson. It had a 46% Black voting age population.

DeSantis eliminated the district after vowing to create what he called “race-neutral” boundaries, getting the Republican-controlled Legislature to go along with him, after vetoing plans approved by lawmakers.

Al Lawson, photographed in 2018.
Al Lawson, photographed in 2018.

The appeals court endorsed DeSantis' approach: "The district, of course, clearly pulled from 'two far-flung segments of a racial group with disparate interests,' " Judges Brad Thomas and Adam Tanenbaum wrote in the opinion, deriding the district linking black communities across North Florida.

"As a legal matter, this was not enough," they concluded.

The 8-2 opinion by the 1st DCA reversed Leon Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh's ruling in September that the map violated the state constitution's prohibition against creating district boundaries that diminish the ability of minority voters to elect a candidate of their choice.

In Friday's DCA ruling, three judges recused themselves.

District cannot be 'manufactured' for voting power

The court said the Jackson-to-Tallahassee district didn't make sense, even though advocates argued that it served to represent urban and rural Black Floridians in a region where they had lived for generations. North Florida had been the plantation belt during the years preceding the Civil War.

But the court didn't buy this argument.

“In other words, it is the community that must have the power, not a district manufactured for the sole purpose of creating voting power," Thomas and Tannenbaum wrote.

During Halloween Day arguments on Marsh's having declared the map unconstitutional, the appeals court judges signaled they would reject that decision and uphold the DeSantis boundaries.

Thomas said that the Tallahassee-to-Jacksonville district was never created to protect Black voters. As a result, he argued, it did not violate the state’s Fair Districts constitutional standards.

Federal case still pending Judges to decide whether DeSantis intentionally hurt Black voters with North Florida map

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Thomas and other judges pointed out that the east-west North Florida district was crafted in 2015 by the Florida Supreme Court, which had taken over congressional redistricting after ruling the Republican-controlled Legislature violated another Fair Districts provision that bars partisan gerrymandering.

Judge: Minority voting not reason for 2015 district

Since the North Florida seat was not formed explicitly to give Black voters an opportunity to elect a favored candidate, eliminating it could not be seen as reducing minority voting rights, the court ruled.

Plaintiffs had argued the new boundaries scattered hundreds of thousands of Black voters across four North Florida districts where they appear to have little political impact.

All four seats were won by GOP members of Congress.

Florida Gov. and GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis made a campaign stop in Greer at the Historic Greer Depot on Dec. 1, 2023. The candidate talked about his policies and took questions from guests.
Florida Gov. and GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis made a campaign stop in Greer at the Historic Greer Depot on Dec. 1, 2023. The candidate talked about his policies and took questions from guests.

DeSantis credits self for GOP winning Congress

Republicans captured 20 of Florida’s 28 districts, a four-seat gain last fall that helped the party gain command of the U.S. House. DeSantis has taken credit for the GOP’s success as he now campaigns for the party’s presidential nomination in a campaign that has him far behind former President Donald Trump in polls.

The appeals court ruling, however, likely won’t be the last word on whether the congressional boundaries pushed by DeSantis, and approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature, stay in place for the 2024 elections.

DeSantis is in a two-front war to preserve the congressional map.

Soon after Marsh’s ruling in September striking down the map for violating the state constitution, a federal trial was conducted in Tallahassee that challenged the map for intentionally discriminating against Black voters.

Attorneys for both sides had asked the appeals court to rule by Thanksgiving, giving time for the matter to be reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court. Although that didn't happen, much of the timeline remains in place.

The Florida Legislature begins the 2024 session in January, where any court-ordered changes could take place.

DeSantis has maintained that the Tallahassee-to-Jacksonville district is an illegal racial gerrymander and that the Fair Districts ban on diminishment violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection provisions by basically favoring Black voters.

The map he pushed through the Florida Legislature last year left no Black member of Congress from North Florida for the first time in 30 years.

Corinne Brown
Corinne Brown

Before the Tallahassee-to-Jacksonville district was created in 2015, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, was elected in 1992 from a Jacksonville-to-Orlando district and served until the realigning of the seat, when she lost to Lawson in the next year's election.

Lawson, in turn, lost to U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Panama City, two years ago, running in a Republican-heavy district.

"Every Floridian should be gravely concerned that their judicial system is turning a blind eye to state-sanctioned voter suppression," said Genesis Robinson, political director for Equal Ground, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

"How are Black voters in Florida supposed to have equal representation under the law when the diminishment of their voting rights goes unchecked?" she added.

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Gov. Ron DeSantis' congressional map upheld by Fla. appeals court