TALLAHASSEE — In a 5-0 ruling with two justices recused, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a request by Gov. Ron DeSantis to provide advice on the legality of changing the configuration of a North Florida congressional district held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat.
The decision now puts the pressure on the Florida House, which has delayed completion of its congressional map awaiting the court’s decision.
The House must decide whether to take the approach of the Senate and leave Congressional District 5, which stretches from Tallahassee to Jacksonville to link Black communities, as it is, or adopt the governor’s approach and dismantle it, creating a Jacksonville-based district instead.
Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, indicated that his chamber was unlikely to adopt the governor’s approach.
”The governor’s question about the North Florida district and its contiguous nature raises a novel legal argument,’’ he said. “We’re probably not in a position to be able to address novel legal arguments in our process, which is why had we had gotten guidance from the Supreme Court that may have enlightened that.”
In the absence of that guidance, he said, the House’s congressional maps will comply with current law and “you can probably anticipate that that North Florida district that was in a previous House map will be similar or the same.”
Less than an hour after he made those remarks, the House posted its proposed congressional redistricting map on the Legislature’s joint website. It shows the configuration of District 5 very similar to the one approved unanimously by the Senate last week.
The governor asked the court for a rare advisory opinion in light of a 2017 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that he said muddled the questions around the Voting Rights Act and whether congressional District 5 was still constitutional. The attorney general and the Republican-controlled Legislature also asked the court to weigh in on the questions.
But Democrat-backed advocacy groups argued in a series of amicus briefs filed Monday that the court did not have jurisdiction and blasted the request as an “ill-conceived attempt to hijack the process” and a partisan attempt to change long-established Florida law.
They warned that if the court opined on a map that didn’t yet exist, it could open the door to unprecedented judicial interference in future legislation at the request of the governor.
In its five-page ruling Thursday, the court did not address the question of jurisdiction but instead rejected the request because it said the issue the governor asked was too broad and required a “fact-intensive analysis and consideration of other congressional districts, not just District 5.”
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“This court’s advisory opinions to the governor are generally limited to narrow questions,” the justices wrote in an opinion from the court rather than any specific justice. “Here, the scope of the governor’s request is broad and contains multiple questions that implicate complex federal and state constitutional matters and precedents interpreting the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
The court also noted that the governor’s request doesn’t provide it with the data record that previous courts have ruled is necessary to determine the voting strength of a minority district: “a functional analysis of statistical evidence, such as the voting age of minority populations and election results.”
It noted that “a record will assist the judiciary in answering the complex federal and state constitutional issues implicated by the governor’s request.”
In a statement, the governor’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said: “While we were hopeful the Supreme Court would provide clarity to legal questions surrounding the maps that are under consideration, we agree with the court’s opinion that there are important issues that must be addressed quickly. We look forward to working with the Legislature to finalize a new congressional map for the 2022 election.”
Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Plantation, who supported the Senate congressional and legislative maps drawn by staff, commended the court for its “swift review of the governor’s unprecedented moves in the legislative redistricting process and for their respect of the separation of powers between branches of government.”
The court also said it expects to be engaged in the issue in the future. Under state law, the Florida attorney general petitions the Florida Supreme Court, and the court must approve the congressional and legislative maps before they become law for the 2022 election cycle.
The Legislature has completed its House and Senate maps and is waiting for the attorney general to petition the court.
The once-a-decade process of redistricting has historically led to lengthy legal challenges through both state and federal court.
“While this court acknowledges the importance of the issues presented by the governor and the expressed need for quick resolution and finality, history shows that the constitutionality of a final redistricting bill for all congressional districts will be subject to more judicial review through subsequent challenges in court,” the opinion stated.
It is unknown whether the full court will be involved in a future redistricting ruling.
Chief Justice Charles Canady, whose wife is a candidate for the state House, recused himself, as did Justice Alan Lawson, who is not related to the congressman. Neither provided a reason.
Canady had written the dissenting opinion that rejected the Legislature’s 2015 attempt at redrawing its congressional map.
Tampa Bay Times reporter Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.