A 2nd Judicial Circuit Court judge struck down Jacksonville’s congressional districts in a ruling against Florida’s redistricting process for violating the state constitution by reducing Black voting power in North Florida.

Circuit Judge J. Layne Smith said, “I am finding the enacted map is unconstitutional because it diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect candidates of their choice.”

He ordered the state to adopt an expert-drawn map that maintains an east-to-west version of Jacksonville’s 5th Congressional District, stretching from Duval to Gadsden counties. The map largely adheres to an earlier version preferred by the Legislature.

The proposed map that the court adopted as Florida’s new congressional map. [Andrew Pantazi / The Tributary]

The ruling came after a Wednesday hearing that saw plaintiffs argue that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ congressional map, which eliminated Jacksonville’s current Black ability-to-elect district, violated the state constitution.

The governor’s office said it will appeal the ruling.

“As Judge Smith implied, these complex constitutional matters of law were always going to be decided at the appellate level. 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,” DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in a statement.

An appeal will first go to the 1st District Court of Appeal, and then if appealed again, it would go to the Florida Supreme Court. The 1st District could also choose to send it straight to the state’s highest court.

Once appealed, the ruling will be automatically stayed, meaning it won’t be in effect during the appeal, but Smith, a DeSantis appointee, urged elections officials to do what’s necessary to get ready for the August primaries.

Smith could lift that stay, ensuring his order goes into effect while the appeals are ongoing. If he does so, the appellate courts could issue a new stay order, which would again pause the order from going into effect.

“Everyone in the government, regardless of the branch, needs to recognize we need to get this right as soon as possible,” Smith said.

The Legislature had initially passed a map that drew a Black ability-to-elect district wholly in Duval County, but DeSantis vetoed that map, saying it was inappropriate to draw a race-conscious district wholly in Jacksonville. Instead, his proposal drew two likely-Republican districts in Northeast Florida.

Even though the Legislature’s leadership and staff said the new districts in DeSantis’ proposal would not allow Black voters to have the ability to elect their preferred candidates, Republicans passed the map over Democrats’ protest.

COURT WON’T STRIKE FAIR DISTRICTS AMENDMENTS

The Florida Legislature’s redistricting maps in the 1990s and 2010s were similarly struck down, but in those cases, it took six years before new maps went into effect.

This time, the plaintiffs sought to focus on getting a preliminary injunction redrawing North Florida’s districts before the 2022 elections. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs are still seeking a full trial to get the whole map thrown out.

The lawsuit was filed by Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute, Equal Ground Education Fund, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Florida Rising and individual voters. The Elias Law Group and Perkins Coie, law firms that represent Democratic causes, brought the lawsuit, along with Orlando’s King, Blackwell, Zehnder and Wermuth.

A decade ago, Florida voters approved the Fair Districts amendments, which changed how the state redrew congressional and state legislative districts. One of the biggest changes those amendments made was incorporating the federal Voting Rights Act’s Section 2 and Section 5 language into the state constitution.

The Section 5 language bars the state from eliminating districts where voters from a minority group can elect candidates of their choice. DeSantis and his staff have argued that the standard violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause, something the U.S. Supreme Court has never held.

Smith noted that while an appellate court may rule that the standard violates the U.S. Constitution, it wasn’t appropriate for him to make that finding. “I don’t have in front of me what I think I would need to say this violates the 14th Amendment.”

“My state Supreme Court has issued an opinion finding that the benchmark Congressional District 5 met constitutional muster, and this is after the Fair Districts amendment had been passed,” he said. That 5th Congressional District, he said, spanned 200 miles from Duval to Gadsden counties. “The Florida Supreme Court issued an opinion. It was more important not to diminish minority’s ability to elect the representative of their choice than the compactness of the district.”

AL LAWSON TO RUN FOR RE-ELECTION

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, told The Tributary he will run for re-election to the 5th Congressional District. If the appellate courts strike down Smith’s order and re-instate the governor’s map, Lawson said he’s unsure if he would run for election to the 2nd Congressional District.

Tony Hill, a former state lawmaker and labor leader who has worked on Lawson’s staff, had just announced Tuesday that he was running for the governor’s new version of the district. If the court’s order is upheld and Lawson does run for re-election, then Hill said he’d likely step aside.

A spokesman for Republican candidate Erick Aguilar — who has been running for the governor’s version of the Jacksonville-based district — said Aguilar would run for election, regardless of which map is ultimately in place.

Rep. Jason Fischer, another Republican running for the district, did not return a request for comment.

DUVAL ELECTIONS OFFICE SAYS IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO IMPLEMENT NEW MAP

During Wednesday’s hearing, a lawyer for Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee argued it was too close to the August primaries to enact a new map.

The Florida Legislature waited four and a half weeks before sending its initial map to DeSantis, who promptly vetoed it. DeSantis and the Legislature then waited another three weeks before holding a special session. The lawsuit was filed less than 24 hours later.

The deadline to qualify for office is June 17, and then the primary election takes place Aug. 23. Ballots must be sent to overseas military voters by July 9.

At one point, he cited an affidavit by Duval County chief elections officer Robert Phillips and said it “comes really close” to saying it’s impossible at this point to enact a new map.

Phillips on Wednesday disputed that characterization, saying he noted the difficulty in redrawing precincts but he never indicated the office couldn’t do it.

“If the court says do it, we have to do it,” he said. “… The fact they ruled so quickly makes it easier.”

Andrew Pantazi is the founding editor of 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 and his wife,...