Bryan Simpson U.S. Courthouse in Jacksonville
Bryan Simpson U.S. Courthouse in Jacksonville [Michael Rivera] Credit: Michael Rivera

Activists asked a federal judge Friday to block the city’s new council district maps in the ongoing Jacksonville redistricting lawsuit, the first step in speeding up the lawsuit ahead of the 2023 elections.

The Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP, the Northside Coalition, the ACLU of Florida Northeast Chapter and Florida Rising, along with 10 Jacksonville voters first filed suit in early May, asking the court to strike down seven of the city’s 14 council districts and three of Duval County’s seven School Board seats.

While the overall Jacksonville redistricting lawsuit isn’t expected to go to trial until the end of 2023, Friday’s injunction motion argues the city’s racial gerrymandering was so egregious that U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard should ensure the city doesn’t hold any elections under the new map.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers argue the Jacksonville City Council intentionally packed Black voters into Districts 7, 8, 9 and 10, which made Districts 2, 12 and 14 have more white voters than they would have otherwise.

“These racially gerrymandered maps that diminish Black voices in government must be halted as soon as possible,” said Isaiah Rumlin, president of the Jacksonville NAACP, in s statement. “We must fight to ensure this racially discriminatory map cannot be used in any election, and that it will be replaced with a map that reflects all of Jacksonville’s communities.”

Ben Frazier, president of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, added: “This plan is unfair and should be blocked because it dilutes Black voting power.”

City Councilman Sam Newby, who served as president during redistricting, said he is “100% confident” the lawsuit will fail because “we didn’t racially gerrymander anything.”

Redistricting Chairman Aaron Bowman also told the Tributary previously he couldn’t “see a scenario where [the map] gets overridden.”

(Clockwise from top-left) Jacksonville City Council districts 10, 14, 9, 7, 2 and 8. [Jacksonville NAACP lawsuit]

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The portion of Jacksonville north and west of the St. Johns River is 49% Black. The packed districts in that area have Black populations that range from 61% to 70% Black. The other three districts range from 21% to 33% Black.

“Because race was the predominant factor motivating district lines, the City must satisfy strict scrutiny by proving that its use of race serves a ‘compelling interest’ and is ‘narrowly tailored’ to that end,” the motion said. “The City cannot meet that burden.”

The city has previously defended itself by saying race wasn’t a predominant factor. Instead, the city argued the City Council prioritized: preserving historic districts, putting people of the same political party together, drawing compact districts, honoring geographic boundaries and complying with the Voting Rights Act.

But the plaintiffs’ new motion said the City Council made race the predominant factor in at least seven of the 14 council districts, even if it meant violating those other priorities.

Even Danny Becton, who served as vice chair of the redistricting committee, said at one meeting, “it just feels like we’re continually making [racial considerations] a predominant priority.”

A list of claims by City Council district. [Motion filed by Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP]

The Duval Supervisor of Elections told the court if U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard grants the injunction, a new map will need to be in place by Dec. 16.

Howard has questioned why the plaintiffs took two months to file the motion for a preliminary injunction. The motion came with more than 2,400 pages of exhibits attached, including transcripts of meetings, old news coverage and expert reports.

The motion relied on reports by University of Florida professor Sharon Austin and Harvard University professor Kosuke Imai. Imai analyzed 10,000 simulations that used the city’s professed criteria as evidence of the racial gerrymandering, showing that the seven contested districts had far more or far fewer Black residents than expected.

This, he said, “shows that race played a significant role beyond the purpose of adhering to the traditional and other redistricting criteria. … The enacted plan dilutes the voting power of Black voters who live in the southwestern parts of Jacksonville and splits the community of Black voters located in the middle of the city.”

INTERACTIVE: See Jacksonville’s gerrymandered City Council districts

Included in the filing were statements from each of the plaintiffs. One, BeJae Shelton, said that ACLU members living in Council District 1, which covers most of Arlington, “experience more responsive representation around issues that impact their community as a result” of the compact district “and find it easier to organize around those common issues.”

And former Florida State College at Jacksonville political science professor Marcella Washington said she worries “that my representatives believe they were elected to represent the interests of white voters only because so many Black voters were stripped out of the districts.”

The motion noted Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson had initially acknowledged the Black-majority districts’ could reduce their share of the Black population. She also said that at least one of the districts was “kind of packed whether intentional or not”.

Later in the process, she backtracked, saying she had no idea anyone thought there was a problem with packing Black voters in the districts. When voting for the plan, she said, “my philosophy was to do no harm” by maintaining the districts’ large Black populations.

The injunction motion also says that if the council “was ignorant of its obligations, that ignorance was willful” because citizens spoke at every public hearing complaining of racial gerrymandering.

But the City Council pushed forward with the redistricting plan anyway.

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 and his wife,...