TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ push to redraw the state’s congressional map and give a substantial advantage to Republicans will likely remain in place for this year’s elections.
The state Supreme Court — in a 4-1 divided ruling in which two justices recused themselves — declined to wade into an ongoing legal dispute over the map. Voting and civil rights groups opposed to the GOP-approved redistricting map asked the state high court to block it in late May. They argue the redistricting maps violate Florida’s Fair Districts provisions, or anti-gerrymandering amendments in the state constitution.
The state Supreme Court’s decision means an appeals court will decide the current legal challenge.
The high court’s ruling comes just two weeks before candidates must qualify for this year’s elections, meaning that the legal challenge won’t be resolved in time for a different map to be in place for the 2022 elections. Florida’s primary will be held on Aug. 23.
It also freezes in place for now a new congressional map for the nation’s third-largest state that will likely give Republicans a potential 20-8 advantage in a state where the GOP has only a slight voter registration advantage. This is another big blow to Democrats' hopes of holding onto their majority in the U.S. House.
This new map also dismantles the North Florida congressional seat held by Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat.
In its one-page decision, the Supreme Court contended it lacked “jurisdiction” over the current redistricting lawsuit and that it would be “speculative” to suggest “whether the First District’s eventual decision will provide an appropriate basis” for review. The decision was endorsed by four justices — including three who were appointed by DeSantis.
Justice Jorge Labarga, who was appointed to the court by former Gov. Charlie Crist, dissented and contended the Supreme Court would eventually take up the case since it revolves around whether the new map violates anti-gerrymandering provisions adopted by voters.
Two justices — Chief Justice Charles Canady and Alan Lawson — did not participate in the decision but did not explain their recusal. Justice Lawson is not related to Rep. Al Lawson.
DeSantis, during remarks at his budget signing ceremony in central Florida, briefly hailed the decision although he acknowledged that there will be “more litigation in the future.”
“At the end of the day we knew we needed to comply with both the state and federal constitutions and the Florida Supreme Court by agreeing with the appeals court — it’s saying, you know, these elections must go on,” DeSantis said.
Groups that challenged the map sharply criticized Thursday’s ruling and said they will not drop their underlying lawsuit.
"With today's ruling, the Florida Supreme Court has shown complete disregard for the Florida Constitution and the solemn oath they swore,” said Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of Equal Ground, in a statement. “Gov. DeSantis’ proposed map is a blatantly unconstitutional attack on Black representation in Florida and a violation of the Fair Districts Amendment. We, the people of Florida, are not going anywhere, and the fight is not over.”
Lawson, who has floated the idea of challenging Panama City Republican Rep. Neal Dunn if his district was not restored, blasted the court as well.
“The justices in the majority ducked their constitutional responsibility, relying on a ridiculous procedural argument to obtain the result they wanted, instead of addressing the merits of the case,” Lawson said in a statement. “The fact that Ron DeSantis appointed three of the four justices who rubberstamped his map made this outcome predictable. This shameful decision by the Florida Supreme Court is further indication that our judiciary has become overly political and is no longer an independent branch of government as our founders intended.”
Florida gained one congressional seat in 2022 due to population growth, for a total of 28, during the once-in-a-decade redistricting process. The Legislature was moving along relatively smoothly until DeSantis — setting aside the normal protocol under past governors — came up with his own maps and submitted them to legislators in January.
The governor contended that any map that preserved Lawson’s seat ran afoul of recent Supreme Court decision because it was a race-based gerrymandering. DeSantis ultimately vetoed the initial map sent to him by legislators who then opted to adopt a proposal entirely drawn by the governor’s office during an April special session.
Passage of the new maps sparked the coalition of civil and voting rights groups to sue in state court to stop it from going forward.
Circuit Judge J. Layne Smith concluded the map proposed by DeSantis was likely unconstitutional because it violated the state’s Fair Districts standards because it diminished the clout of Black voters by redistributing them from Lawson’s seat into four districts.
Smith tried to impose a map that kept Lawson’s district intact, but that decision was upended by the 1st District Court of Appeal in May.