TALLAHASSEE — In a swift reversal of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ bold political gambit, a Leon County Circuit Court judge on Wednesday threw out the new congressional map drawn by the governor and approved by legislators, ordering a new map drawn by a Harvard expert to be put in place.
Judge Layne Smith, in a ruling from the bench after a four-hour hearing, found DeSantis’ map unconstitutional under the Fair Districts Amendment of the Florida Constitution “because it diminishes the African Americans’ ability to select the representative of their choice.”
Smith, who served in the administration of former Gov. Rick Scott, was appointed to the county bench by Scott and later appointed to the circuit court by DeSantis. He said it would be up to lawmakers to decide if they want to enact a new map when the Legislature convenes for a week-long special session on May 23.
But in an effort to get precincts set for candidates to qualify, he ordered a map drawn by the plaintiffs’ expert, Harvard professor Stephen Ansolabehere, to replace the one approved by the governor and Legislature.
Smith said he will release a written order by Thursday, anticipating the state will appeal his ruling immediately. An appellate court could put a hold on the decision or certify it immediately to the Florida Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court for review.
‘We will undoubtedly be appealing’
The ruling is another legal blow to DeSantis, who vetoed a compromise map drawn by Republicans and then called lawmakers into a special session in April to approve a map his staff had drawn.
“As Judge Smith implied, these complex constitutional matters of law were always going to be decided at the appellate level,” said DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske. “We will undoubtedly be appealing his ruling and are confident the constitutional map enacted by the Florida Legislature and signed into law passes legal muster. We look forward to defending it.”
The ruling leaves in place Congressional District 5, which stretches along the northern part of the state to link together Black communities from Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, to Jacksonville.
The district was drawn and approved by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 after the court rejected the Legislature’s map during the 2010 redistricting cycle. But the governor and lawyers arguing on behalf of the state called it an “illegal gerrymander” that violates the equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
They argued that since the Florida courts approved the 2015 map, there have been at least two rulings that undermine the protections in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Smith acknowledged that another court might agree with them but, he added: “I’m not going to be that court.
“I don’t have in front of me what I think I would need to say this violates the 14th Amendment,” he said, adding “We have a lot of law between 1965 and now, including even on the Fair District amendments since it was enacted and added to the Constitution.”
Get insights into Florida politics
Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
The governor’s map was fiercely opposed by Democrats, many of whom have supported a previous map drawn by Senate Republicans. They argued that the governor’s proposal was blatantly partisan and violated the Fair Districts provisions by favoring Republicans in 20 of the 28 seats and diminishing the ability of Black voters to elect representatives of their choice in at least two of the proposed districts.
As a protest to the governor’s attempt to force the map through, several Democratic lawmakers staged a one-hour sit-in, temporarily shutting down the House floor proceedings and resulting in an accelerated end to the special session.
Voting rights groups, such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, and individual plaintiffs filed the lawsuit April 22 and asked the court for a temporary injunction and to order the Legislature to redraw a constitutional map.
The plaintiffs argued that the district drawn by the governor’s staff, and approved by the Legislature along mostly partisan lines, violated the provisions that prohibit the state from diminishing the ability of minority voters from electing candidates of their choice.
Smith ultimately agreed.
“I do find persuasive the arguments that were made about the diminishment of African American votes,” Smith said. “...The district that has since been enacted and signed into law by the governor does disperse 367,000 African American votes between four different districts.”
He acknowledged that the governor’s proposed Congressional District 5 may be a more compact district but said it is not in line with the minority voting rights protections in the state Constitution.
He compared the value of representing diverse communities in redistricting to picking a diverse jury in a legal proceeding.
“One of the reasons courts want to make sure juries represent society is that people are more confident and trusting of courts if juries aren’t all-white or all-Black or all-anything,” he said. “People have a right to participate and the jury looks like the community.”
However, an attorney for the state, Mohammad Omar Jazil, argued that recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have restricted the use of race as a guiding factor in redistricting cases.
He said that adhering to the Fair District provisions would not be considered a compelling interest as required in the federal Constitution.
“No court has ever held that complying with a state constitution is a compelling interest,” Jazil said.
However, the plaintiffs countered that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2019 case, Rucho v. Common Cause, that “provisions in state statutes and state constitutions can provide standards and guidance for state courts to apply.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney John Delaney also suggested that Republicans delayed the process to leave less time ahead of the November elections to deliberate whether to keep DeSantis’ map.
“This is a timing circumstance of their own making,” he said. “These are not naive people. They know if they delay maybe a court will be more reluctant.”
Smith indicated that he considered the legislature’s process “open and transparent” and noted that after the governor vetoed lawmakers’ map they chose not to override his veto. He rejected the plaintiff’s suggestion the process was intentionally delayed.
“The parties in this case couldn’t have done anything quicker than they did,” he said, noting that the plaintiffs appealed the case swiftly. “Nobody has drug their feet in a gotcha game, I think. It’s just we have a very short period of time to get this right.”
Smith said he is hoping a resolution to the case will happen quickly.
“Let’s get it to the appellate court, so we can make the determination as soon as possible, so that whatever the final answer is gets out to the people that need to put this into practice,” he said.
He said it he will try to get the order released on Thursday, “and it doesn’t matter how much coffee I gotta drink to make it happen.”