Voting rights groups want redistricting case to go straight to Florida Supreme Court

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Underscoring the “urgency” in the run-up to the 2022 election, lawyers for voting rights groups called on Friday for a battle over a new congressional redistricting plan to be expedited in Florida Supreme Court.

The attorneys filed a court document essentially seeking to circumvent the 1st District Court of Appeals, a procedural move known as a Supreme Court certification application.

The request came after Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration appealed a Thursday ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith, who issued a temporary injunction against the redistricting plan.

Lawyers for voting rights groups and other plaintiffs have written that there is time to move forward with a “corrective” redistricting plan before the 2022 election, but “that window will likely close. in a few weeks”. Qualifying for the elections will take place in mid-June, with primary elections on August 23 and general elections on November 8.

“This appeal therefore cannot await briefing, argument and judgment in this court (the 1st District Court of Appeals), even on an expedited schedule,” the seven-page document states. “No matter how quickly that tribunal moves, the time the parties would spend briefing the issues at stake and the tribunal would spend weighing their competing arguments, would significantly reduce the time the Supreme Court has to receive the same briefing and complete the same analysis in order to provide the final word on the constitutionality of the adopted plan.

Voting rights groups and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit April 22 after the Republican-dominated Legislature passed a redistricting plan that would increase the number of GOP representatives in the Congressional delegation of Florida. The plaintiffs also sought a temporary injunction, focused on an overhaul of North Florida’s 5 Congressional District.

Smith told a hearing on Wednesday he would grant the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary injunction and demand a redrawing of part of the plan, which DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in a special session in April. .

The judge then issued a 21-page written ruling on Thursday, urging state attorneys to quickly file a notice to take the case to the 1st District Court of Appeals.

The notice triggered an automatic stay of Smith’s decision, which effectively means the decision will be stayed until the appeal is heard. A court ruling requires automatic stays when the state files such appeals, though it is possible for plaintiffs to try to have the stays lifted.

As of late Friday afternoon, the two sides had not filed detailed briefs in the Tallahassee Court of Appeals.

But the case centers on District 5, which, after a 2015 Florida Supreme Court ruling, stretches from Jacksonville west to Tallahassee. It was designed to help elect a black representative and is held by Congressman Al Lawson, a black Democrat.

As part of the DeSantis-backed redistricting plan, lawmakers drastically changed the district to condense it into the Jacksonville area. DeSantis argued that maintaining the district’s sprawling east-west shape would involve racial gerrymandering and violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In a court document filed Monday, state prosecutors wrote that the equal protection clause prohibits “race-based voter screening” without a “compelling interest” and a “narrowly tailored” means of achieving that interest.

But plaintiffs in the lawsuit said the redesigned district violated a 2010 state constitutional amendment — known as the Fair Districts Amendment — that established redistricting standards. Part of this amendment prohibits diminishing the ability of minority voters to “elect representatives of their own choosing.”

In issuing the temporary injunction, Smith wrote that the plaintiffs had shown a “substantial likelihood of proving that the adopted plan violates the non-diminishment standard” of the Fair Districts amendment.

Smith also rejected arguments by the DeSantis administration regarding the Equal Protection Clause and whether there was a compelling interest in maintaining the east-west shape of District 5. He wrote, in part, that “respect for the non-diminishment provision of the Fair Districts Amendment is a compelling imperative. interest of the state”.

Further, he wrote that “addressing the history of racial discrimination related to voting and lack of representation in North Florida is itself a compelling state interest.”

“The plaintiffs presented evidence that for much of Florida’s history, black voters in the state were unable to participate equally in the electoral process, black residents of northern Florida facing particularly heavy burdens to break into the franchise,” wrote Smith, who was nominated by former Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2015 as a county judge and was elevated by DeSantis in 2020 to judge of circuit.

In the injunction, Smith ordered the use of a map offered by an expert witness for the plaintiffs. This map would retain the east-west configuration.

Smith also dismissed arguments from the DeSantis administration that it was too late to change the map before this year’s election.

“We are not days or weeks away from an election,” Smith wrote. “Florida’s primary, one of the last in the country, is scheduled for August 23, nearly four months away.”

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