December 4, 2023

Fast Track Rejected in Redistricting Fight

An appeals court Tuesday rejected a request by voting-rights groups to fast-track a congressional redistricting fight to the Florida Supreme Court.

The decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal was a blow to the groups and other plaintiffs trying to block a redistricting plan pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith on May 12 issued a temporary injunction against the plan, but the state appealed and Smith’s ruling was put on hold. With this year’s elections approaching, plaintiffs filed a motion to effectively send the temporary-injunction dispute straight to the Supreme Court, a move known as seeking “certification” to the Supreme Court.

But in the one-paragraph decision Tuesday, the Tallahassee-based appeals court rejected the certification request. It remains unclear when the appeals court will issue a ruling in the underlying dispute about the temporary injunction. But as it stands now, the DeSantis-backed plan would be used in this year’s election.

“As the court has previously intimated, this appeal involves a wholly procedural matter relating to the permissible scope of temporary injunctions, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly and clearly addressed,” the appeals court’s decision said. “Due to the limited scope of this appeal and record, there does not appear to be a basis for certification under the criteria set out” in part of the Florida Constitution.

The case has spawned a series of procedural moves, at least in part because of the short timeline before this year’s elections. A qualifying period for candidates will be held in mid-June, with primary elections Aug. 23.

In seeking certification, attorneys for the plaintiffs pointed to “urgency” as the elections near.

“This appeal, therefore, cannot wait for briefing, argument and judgment in this court (the 1st District Court of Appeal), even under an expedited schedule,” the May 13 motion said. “No matter how quickly this court moves, the time the parties would spend briefing the issues at stake and the court would spend weighing their competing arguments, would severely subtract from the time available for the Supreme Court to receive the same briefing and complete the same analysis in order to provide final word on the constitutionality of the enacted plan.”

In a separate move, the plaintiffs went to the Supreme Court on Monday seeking a stay of an appeals-court order that placed Smith’s ruling on hold. That request is pending.

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.”

The overall redistricting plan passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature is expected to increase the number of GOP members of 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.

But in issuing a stay that put Smith’s ruling on hold, the appeals court indicated it did not agree with the temporary injunction.

“Based on a preliminary review, the court has determined there is a high likelihood that the temporary injunction is unlawful, because by awarding a preliminary remedy to the appellees (the plaintiffs) on their claim, the order ‘frustrated the status quo, rather than preserved it,’” the appeals court said, quoting a legal precedent.

The appeals court also cited the “exigency of the circumstances and the need for certainty and continuity as election season approaches.”

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