TALLAHASSEE — The federal judge handling Florida’s congressional redistricting case said Wednesday that he will not step aside and recuse himself, even though he represented the state House of Representatives in the last redistricting cycle and worked to oppose the state’s anti-gerrymandering provisions.
“This is a different case, featuring different issues, addressing a different map, in a different redistricting cycle — nearly a decade after I stopped working on redistricting matters,” Judge Allen Winsor wrote in a 13-page order in which he refused to remove himself from the case brought by Common Cause Florida, FairDistricts Now and five individual voters.
The groups are asking the federal court to set the new congressional districts, arguing that the decision by Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the congressional map and the Legislature’s inability to reach a resolution during the regular legislative session has led to an impasse on the issue.
Winsor, who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump, is one of three judges named by Chief Judge William Pryor to a panel to handle the case. Also on the panel are U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers, a George W. Bush appointee, and U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan, a Barack Obama appointee.
Winsor acknowledged that although he worked on previous redistricting cases, “the cases I worked on were not this case” and “the plaintiffs point to nothing ‘rare’ or ‘extraordinary’ about my redistricting litigation. I was a lawyer representing a client ... that is what I did. I handled many cases for many clients in many courts. I addressed many legal issues. And some had to do with redistricting.”
The plaintiffs argued that while Winsor was a lawyer in private practice at the GrayRobinson law firm, he not only represented the Florida House on a series of redistricting issues from 2005 to 2013, he also actively attempted to undercut the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution.
The Fair Districts amendments establish standards that attempt to reduce political favoritism in drawing legislative and congressional districts. In 2009, three years before redistricting and more than a year before the amendments made it to the ballot and were approved by voters by a 63 percent majority, Winsor was on the legal team advising legislators who opposed the amendments.
He also advised lawmakers who put an alternative redistricting amendment on the 2010 ballot, known as Amendment 7, which gave communities of interest priority over the anti-gerrymandering standards in the Fair Districts amendments. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that Amendment 7 was misleading and removed it from the ballot.
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“Judge Winsor’s work as the longstanding Florida House’s legal counsel, and his efforts to defeat those redistricting standards, would make it difficult for an informed lay observer to have confidence in his fair resolution of this matter,” the plaintiffs wrote.
In his ruling, Winsor was defiant in his defense, arguing that removing himself from the case would be without merit, and such an action would “significantly undermine public confidence in the judiciary.”
“One might argue that a judge facing a public call to recuse could alleviate even a hint of impartiality by stepping aside, even when the law does not demand it,” he wrote. “One might argue that is the safer course. But the Eleventh Circuit has emphasized that this is not the answer.”
Meanwhile, the state has asked that the case be put on hold as legislators convene April 19-22 for a special session to pass a new congressional map.
DeSantis vetoed the congressional map on March 29 and called lawmakers back for a special session to introduce a map that meets his legal standards. Winsor gave the state until Friday to file its briefs on that ruling.
DeSantis said this week that he expects whatever is passed to be challenged in court but was optimistic legislators would agree with him to avoid letting the courts draw the maps.
“It’s going to end up working out,” he said, adding: “At the end of the day, we’re not going to just let a court draw the congressional map.”
In his veto letter, DeSantis cited case law from 1992 and 1995 and said that the Legislature’s congressional map was unconstitutional “because it assigns voters primarily on the basis of race but is not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest.”
However, DeSantis also argued that the legislature’s primary map didn’t go far enough to protect the ability of Black voters to elect their preferred candidates because it reduces the Black voting-age population in the North Florida minority district by 11 percentage points — below that of the district in the existing map. He argued that makes the map unconstitutional.
The Legislature’s backup map, he argued, is also unconstitutional because it protects Black voters at the expense of white voters and “in doing so, it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
House and Senate leaders responded in a joint statement that they would “exhaust every effort in pursuit of a legislative solution.”
Under state law, legislators or affected individuals may petition the court when there is an impasse on redistricting and ask the court to step in to complete a map in time for candidates to qualify for office. The deadline this year for qualifying by petition is May 17 and by paying a qualifying fee the deadline is June 17.
The plaintiffs in the case say that there is no indication that an impasse will be overcome.