A Tallahassee judge lifted a stay in a Florida redistricting lawsuit, ordering election officials to begin using a map that preserves a Black congressional district in North Florida.

The new map, drawn by a Harvard professor, only affects the North Florida congressional districts, re-instating a Duval-to-Gadsden 5th Congressional District to protect Black voters’ ability to elect their preferred candidates.

Circuit Judge J. Layne Smith ordered the new map last Wednesday, saying that he found “the enacted map is unconstitutional because it diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect candidates of their choice.”

But Florida appealed, automatically staying the decision until Smith’s new order lifting the stay Monday.

The state’s lawyer said he would file a motion Tuesday asking the 1st District Court of Appeal to reinstate a stay, halting Smith’s order and keeping the earlier map signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Court-ordered map in Florida redistricting lawsuit.
The proposed map that the court adopted as Florida’s new congressional map. [Andrew Pantazi / The Tributary]

“Fundamental constitutional rights are at stake and time is both short and of the essence,” Smith wrote in his order lifting the automatic stay. “There are no do-overs when it comes to elections; in essence, there is no remedy for a Florida voter once their constitutional rights have been infringed.”

At one point, Smith’s written order used bold font and an exclamation point, responding to an argument that he should defer to the Florida secretary of state.

“Here, the issue is the Legislature’s compliance with the state constitution—not some run-of-the-mill executive branch planning decision!” he wrote. “Thus, the Secretary of State is due no deference.”

Smith was appointed to the county bench by then-Gov. Rick Scott and then elevated to the circuit bench by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs — a collection of voting-rights groups and voters — have asked the appellate court to send the case directly to the Florida Supreme Court.

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.

The lawsuit names the Florida secretary of state, the state House, the state Senate, the House speaker, the Senate president and the chairmen of the two chambers’ redistricting committees.

Smith noted that while the secretary of state had fought the lawsuit, the Legislature and legislators named had not defended the enacted map.

He also criticized the idea that courts shouldn’t intervene in an election year, giving the political party in power the ability to gerrymander. “If the answer is no one can do anything after the first election after the decennial census, that’s not a very good message to the people.”

“I think the people would have a real problem with their government if, rather than this being decided by courts on their merits, the clock ran out,” Smith said. “… It’s crunch time now. This involves fundamental constitutional rights.”

Screenshot of Zoom hearing in the Florida redistricting lawsuit
Monday’s hearing was hosted over Zoom. [The Florida Channel]

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, arguing that it violates the state’s Fair Districts standards as a partisan and racial gerrymander.

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 the U.S. Supreme Court has pointed to Florida’s Fair Districts standards as an example that other states could follow, making it seem unlikely he should assume the court would strike down those standards.

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...