By Andrew Pantazi
The Tributary

The Florida Supreme Court unanimously rejected Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request for an advisory opinion on whether Jacksonville’s Congressional District 5 is constitutional, saying the question was too broad and fact-intensive.

The five justices who signed the opinion included three appointed by DeSantis. Two other justices had earlier recused themselves from the request.

Before bringing the court in, the Florida Senate had already approved a congressional proposal that largely maintains District 5, which is currently represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, in a Jacksonville to Tallahassee shape.

The Senate has said that Districts 5 in North Florida and 10 in Orlando needed protections to ensure Black voters retain the ability to elect candidates of their choice, but DeSantis’ staff criticized the proposal as “unconstitutional”.

DeSantis’ proposal, which he submitted last month, would cut two of the state’s four Black districts and create two solidly Republican seats in Northeast Florida.

The Legislature redrew District 5 in the middle of the last decade after courts found an earlier Jacksonville-to-Orlando district had arbitrarily packed Black voters to make them a majority of the district.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls said the Jacksonville-to-Tallahassee configuration will be “similar or the same”.

Sprowls said the governor’s complaint about the district was “a novel legal argument. We’re probably not in a position to be able to address novel legal arguments in our process.”

DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in a statement: “While we were hopeful the Supreme Court would provide clarity to legal questions surrounding the maps that are under consideration, we agree with the Court’s opinion that there are important issues that must be addressed quickly. We look forward to working with the Legislature to finalize a new congressional map for the 2022 election.”

DeSantis wouldn’t say if he planned to veto maps that kept District 5 spanning from Jacksonville to Tallahassee.

Senate President Wilton Simpson and the redistricting committee chairmen in the House and Senate have not returned requests for comment.

Rep. Kelly Skidmore, who serves as the ranking Democrat on the congressional redistricting subcommittee, said, “It’s time to set aside this political distraction and get back to work. Floridians expect us to create fair maps that uphold the Florida and U.S. constitutions, and that’s exactly what we plan to do.”

While the state approved legislative maps that can’t be vetoed, congressional redistricting has stalled ever since DeSantis asked for the court’s opinion.

The court had already taken the rare step of requesting arguments over whether it even had jurisdiction to answer DeSantis’ question, something it appears it hasn’t done in at least the last 33 years, according to a review of advisory opinion cases listed on the court’s website.

The governor had asked the court to issue an opinion determining if the state’s Fair Districts standards — which say that minority populations’ voting power can’t be diminished — explicitly require a North Florida district that connects Jacksonville’s Black population with Black populations in Tallahassee or Orlando to ensure Black voters can elect the candidate of their choice.

The Florida Constitution allows governors to seek advisory opinions of the court, but only as it relates to “the interpretation of any portion of this constitution upon any question affecting the governor’s executive powers and duties”.

DeSantis argued his veto was an executive power.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry also weighed in, arguing that the court needed to offer voters more of an assurance that the adopted plan wouldn’t later be struck down. He also said that Jacksonville residents “may be better served without a District stretching from one region of the state to another.”

The court didn’t rule on whether it had jurisdiction to answer the governor’s question or not because it said the question itself was too broad and required analyzing specific facts, an argument that had been put forward in briefs by All on the Line Florida, FairDistricts Now and Common Cause Florida.

Duval County has about a million people, and the ideal congressional district makes up 769,221 people, which means Duval will always have at least two congressional districts running through it.

DeSantis’ proposal draws two white-majority districts that would likely elect Republicans. The Senate-approved plan has Jacksonville made up of one white-majority district and one Black-plurality district that stretches to Gadsden County.

It’s possible to draw a congressional district wholly within Duval County that would consistently vote Democratic and see Black voters make up the majority of Democratic primary voters.

The Florida House had scheduled a congressional redistricting subcommittee meeting for Friday, but it canceled that meeting. Sprowls said the process will now “unpause,” and another subcommittee meeting will be scheduled for next week.

A full House redistricting committee meeting is scheduled for the following Friday.

This is Changing Florida, a Tributary newsletter keeping you up to date on redistricting, demographics and the fight for political power in the Sunshine State.

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On The Calendar

The Jacksonville City Council Rules Committee will host its third public hearing tonight about its local redistricting plan at 6 p.m at First Coast High School.

The committee will host one more hearing next Thursday at 6 p.m. on Feb. 17 at Raines High.

The Florida House Redistricting Committee is scheduled to meet the following Friday, Feb. 18, at 9 a.m.

Submit your maps

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Here’s how you can get started drawing your own maps.

When you’re done, send a link to your map to info@jaxtrib.org, so we can feature your map in a future newsletter.

Andrew Pantazi edits and reports for The Tributary. He previously worked as a reporter at The Florida Times-Union where he helped organize the newsroom's union with the NewsGuild-CWA. He is a Jacksonville...