TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday declined to jump into a congressional redistricting fight, leaving in place a lower-court decision that would clear the way for using a controversial plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature.
The justices, in a 4-1 ruling, rejected a request by voting rights groups to stay a decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal. That appeals court decision effectively would allow the DeSantis plan to be used in this year’s elections as legal battles continue.
The one-paragraph ruling Thursday came as part of a thicket of legal moves as voting rights groups and other plaintiffs challenge the constitutionality of the DeSantis-backed plan, which lawmakers passed during an April special legislative session.
Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith sided with the plaintiffs and issued a temporary injunction to block the plan and require use of a different map. The 1st District Court of Appeal, however, issued a stay of Smith’s temporary injunction. That decision would allow the use of the DeSantis-backed plan.
The voting rights groups then asked the Supreme Court to impose a stay of the 1st District Court of Appeal decision. But the Supreme Court majority declined to do so.
“Here petitioners (the plaintiffs) ask this (Supreme) Court to intervene in the First District Court of Appeal’s ongoing consideration of an appeal of an order imposing a temporary injunction,” the ruling by Justices Ricky Polston, Carlos Muniz, John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans said. “At this time, this (Supreme) Court does not have jurisdiction over that matter.”
Justice Jorge Labarga dissented, while Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Alan Lawson were recused. The court did not explain why Canady and Lawson stayed out of the case.
The case centers on Congressional District 5, a sprawling North Florida district that was drawn in the past to help elect a Black member of Congress. DeSantis argued that continuing with such a district would involve racial gerrymandering and violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The Legislature approved DeSantis’ proposal to revamp the district, condensing it in the Jacksonville area. But Smith ruled that the plan violated a 2010 state constitutional amendment — known as the Fair Districts amendment — that barred diminishing the ability of minority voters to “elect representatives of their choice.”
In his dissent Thursday, Labarga alluded to heavy voter support of Fair Districts and said the Supreme Court ultimately will be asked to rule on Smith’s temporary injunction. While the 1st District Court of Appeal put the injunction on hold, it has not issued a ruling on the underlying issues in the injunction.
“Given this (Supreme) Court’s history of considering congressional redistricting cases, I cannot forecast that we will lack jurisdiction to review the district court’s merits decision (on the underlying injunction),” Labarga wrote. “At stake here is the mandate of 62.9% of Florida voters who voted in 2010 for one of what are commonly known as the Fair Districts Amendments to the Florida Constitution — by any measure of comparison, 62.9% of the vote is an overwhelming margin.”
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The plaintiffs have scrambled to block the DeSantis-backed plan, as candidate-qualifying for this year’s elections will be held June 13 to June 17 and primaries will be held Aug. 23.
The plan is expected to increase the number of Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation from 16 to 20, based on past voting patterns. District 5 is currently held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, but the revamped district likely would flip to Republicans.
Smith’s temporary injunction ordered use of a map that would keep the current sprawling shape of the district, which stretches from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee. Using that map also would affect some other districts.
Smith, who was appointed as a circuit judge by DeSantis, wrote that the plaintiffs had shown a “substantial likelihood of proving that the enacted plan (passed by the Legislature) violates the non-diminishment standard” of the Fair Districts amendment.
But in explaining its stay, a three-judge panel of the appeals court sharply criticized the temporary injunction, calling it “patently unlawful.”
In asking the Supreme Court to essentially override the appeals court’s stay, however, attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote that the case “presents issues of exceeding public importance, implicates provisions of both the Florida and Federal Constitutions, and will evade this (Supreme) Court’s jurisdiction if that jurisdiction is not invoked now.”
Muniz, Couriel and Grosshans were appointed to the Supreme Court by DeSantis, while Polston and Labarga were appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist.
By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida