Florida Supreme Court approves new legislative redistricting maps

The Democratic House leader said this doesn’t necessarily end the process to redraw lines. There still could be a lawsuit challenging the maps.
In this  Jan. 12 photo, people walk past the Florida State Capitol Building, with the Historic Capitol building in the background, during a legislative session in Tallahassee.  New political maps for the Florida House and Senate were approved by the state Supreme Court on Thursday.
In this Jan. 12 photo, people walk past the Florida State Capitol Building, with the Historic Capitol building in the background, during a legislative session in Tallahassee. New political maps for the Florida House and Senate were approved by the state Supreme Court on Thursday. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | Associated Press ]
Published March 3, 2022|Updated March 4, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s voters will have a new set of political boundaries to follow when they elect their state legislators in November, after the state’s high court finalized legislative maps on Thursday as part of the nation’s once-a-decade redistricting cycle.

The maps are expected to seal in place a Republican majority in the state Legislature for the next decade. The Senate map gives Republicans a likely 23-17 advantage over Democrats in the 40-member chamber — a one seat pickup for Democrats over the current map. The House map gives Democrats as many as eight additional seats in the 120-member House, potentially reducing the Republican majority to 71 from 79, and increasing the Democratic share to 49.

The decision means that candidates may now start lining up to run in the various state House and Senate districts, and it is expected to force some legislators to move to new neighborhoods, as the new maps put some lawmakers into the same districts.

But if voters want clarity on the congressional candidates on the ballot, they are going to have to wait.

House, Senate, governor at impasse

An impasse over the congressional map remains a possibility after the House advanced an amendment Thursday that fails to resolve a stalemate between the governor’s office and the Legislature.

If a congressional map isn’t passed by the time lawmakers end the legislative session on March 11, they will have to return for a special session or ask the court to draw a redistricting map. They face a permanent deadline: June 17, the final day for candidates to qualify to run for Congress.

The House gave preliminary approval to two congressional maps that attempt to bridge differences between the positions taken by Gov. Ron DeSantis — who wants a more partisan map that dismantles Black-majority districts in North and Central Florida — and the Florida Senate, which drew a more politically competitive map in an attempt to abide by the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the Florida Constitution.

The House proposes two maps, one that creates a Duval County-centric district that diminishes Black voting strength in North Florida; the second map is similar to the map that passed the state Senate but favors more Republicans than the Senate plan by splitting Black voters in Orlando.

The House will take a final vote on the maps on Friday and, if the Senate agrees, and the governor lets it become law, the court will decide. If the court invalidates the first map, the idea is that second map will take effect.

But as of Thursday, the Senate had not given any signal that it would accept the House plan. DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske said the maps to be voted on Friday “still do not satisfy our concerns.”

Anything can still happen

“There are a lot of three-dimensional chess games going on here,’’ said Dan Smith, a University of Florida political science professor and an expert on redistricting.

Because the House and Senate are in the midst of finalizing their budgets and negotiating with the governor about passing his priority legislation before the session ends, anything can still happen, he said.

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“There’s horse-trading that goes on, with respect to budget priorities and the future ambitions of politicians running for higher office.”

Under the House’s primary map, former President Donald Trump would have won 18 of the 28 districts, but the margin of victory would make eight somewhat more competitive than the current congressional map, according to an analysis by the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

The primary map, C8019, features a Jacksonville-only Black-majority district that dismantles the current Congressional District 5, which stretches from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. The House proposal reduces the Black voting-age population from 44 percent to 35 percent, but in a Democratic primary, Black voters would make up 65 percent of the voting-age population, compared to 69 percent in the current district.

Whether or not such a change would pass court scrutiny remains such an open question that the House is proposing a backup plan, C8015, that would automatically take effect if the court rejects its first choice.

The pivotal legal question revolves around the Fair District amendments to the Florida Constitution and Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which has come under new interpretation since Florida’s last redistricting maps were approved a decade ago.

Related: DeSantis asks Florida Supreme Court if Black congressman’s district is constitutional

DeSantis and his lawyers, including experts from the conservative think tank Judicial Watch, argue that only districts where 50 percent of the voting-age population is Black are protected. For that reason, the governor argues, the current Congressional District 5, and Congressional District 10, which is based in Orlando, do not need to be preserved in the 2022 map.

Neither the House nor the Senate agrees with that argument as it relates to Congressional District 5, now held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat. And only the House agrees with the argument as it relates to Orlando-based District 10, now held by U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat challenging Republican Marco Rubio for U.S. Senate.

Related: DeSantis redistricting map ignites intraparty discord

The Fair Districts provisions of the Florida Constitution incorporated the federal Voting Rights Act provisions and require that legislators may not draw districts that diminish the voting strength of minority voters.

Under the current congressional map, Florida has four districts that have elected Blacks to Congress and, voting advocates argue, if legislators reduce the number, the Florida Supreme Court will be forced to reject that.

Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor and redistricting expert, said that the governor’s threat of a veto may have unwittingly weakened the Republican case if the map ends up before a court because “all of this public gamesmanship has worked against the Republicans as we can see the different partisan effects in the plan.”

During House debate Thursday, Redistricting Chairman Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, acknowledged that legislators were “faced with a unique situation” because the governor’s “novel constitutional arguments” are potentially intended to challenge the Voting Rights Amendment.

Under the House plan, which will come to a final vote on Friday, opponents would have 30 days to file a challenge to the congressional map, instead of the four years allowed under current law.

Democrats tried and failed to remove that statute of limitations and warned that it violates the constitutional protections of due process by using procedure as a weapon.

Court victory for GOP

The Florida Supreme Court’s decision over the legislative maps was a victory for Republican legislative leaders who restrained access to the redistricting process in an effort to avoid the appearance of impropriety and dodge a protracted legal fight.

It was also a victory for voting rights advocates who pushed for the anti-gerrymandering provisions of the Florida Constitution that constrained how far legislators could go to draw districts that preserve the advantage of parties and incumbency.

“We conclude that there is evidence in the record here to support the conclusion that the Legislature drew its 2022 plans without an impermissible intent to favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent,’’ Justice Carlos Muñiz wrote for the court majority. Chief Justice Charles Canady, whose wife is running for the state House, recused himself from the ruling. No reason was given.

The court noted in the opinion that “for the first time since the voters adopted the existing procedural framework for judicial review of apportionment in 1968, no one appeared to oppose the Legislature’s plans.”

But, House Democrats warned, that may not be the end of the story,

“This ruling was not a surprise,’’ said House Democratic Leader, Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach. “As expected, the court upheld the facial review of the maps. This wasn’t a decision on a fact-based challenge. Celebrating this is like running victory laps in the first quarter. We still have a lot of game left to play.”

The court ruling also handed GOP legislators a minor loss, rejecting their request to use the ruling on the legislative redistricting map to overturn court precedent from the 2012 court decision. The more liberal court did not require the challengers to prove the map violated state law “beyond a reasonable doubt,’’ the legislators argued.

“We do not think that this uncontested proceeding is the place to delve into the standard of review for future, hypothetical challenges,’’ Muñiz wrote.