City Council President Terrance Freeman (left) joined by two city attorneys in a courtroom sketch. [Steve Bridges]

The Jacksonville City Council stacked its new redistricting committee with Republicans and hired a prominent conservative redistricting lawyer to appeal a court order finding the council’s districts were racially gerrymandered.

To handle its appeal of a racial gerrymandering ruling, Jacksonville hired Mohammad O. Jazil, who is already representing the Florida secretary of state and Gov. Ron DeSantis in two redistricting lawsuits filed against the state’s congressional maps.

Jazil will try to stop last week’s federal court order and reinstate the City Council maps signed by Mayor Lenny Curry earlier this year. Jazil regularly handles election-related litigation for the state. His firm, Holtzman Vogel, also represents the National Republican Redistricting Trust.

City Council President Terrance Freeman also announced Tuesday evening the creation of a new redistricting committee, the council’s third such committee this cycle. Six Republicans and a Democrat will make up the committee.

This version of the committee will meet for the first time on Thursday, and then it will meet again on Nov. 1, Nov. 2 and Nov. 3.

Freeman said the City Council would vote on the new maps on Nov. 4 at a special meeting. He said the committee “is charged with obtaining legally permissible considerations for redistricting … as well as preparing a plan.”

Last week, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard barred Jacksonville from using its City Council and Duval School Board district maps, finding that seven City Council and three School Board districts were likely racially gerrymandered.

Black voters, she ruled, have been segregated based on race, which has ensured they won’t have a “meaningful impact on any election or a meaningful voice on any issue of concern.”

She said the City Council must pass a new map that does “not use race as a predominant factor in the design of any district unless that use of race is narrowly tailored to comply with a constitutionally permissible compelling government interest.”

Courts generally only allow lawmakers to use race as a predominant factor if it’s necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act. Even then, they can only use race to the extent they must to draw certain protected districts, courts have said.

Plaintiffs pointed to multiple expert reports that said at least four districts packed in far more Black voters than necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

The city, however, argued its past map used party more than race by trying to pack in Democrats, not Black voters, into four out of 14 districts, even though former Redistricting Chairman Aaron Bowman had previously said partisanship was never a factor.

Judge Howard rejected that argument, saying the city only pointed to politics as the explanation for “minor tweaks” to the districts and not as an explanation for those districts’ overall sprawling designs.

The city’s charter also requires districts that are “logical and compact,” but Howard found the districts were “odd and illogical.”

Unlike the past committee, Freeman did not appoint any Duval County School Board members. Each Duval County School Board district is made up of two City Council districts, so School Board members were appointed to the past committee to offer advice on how redistricting would affect them.

The last committee was made up of three Republicans, two Democrats and two nonpartisan School Board members.

The committee before that, which met only a few times in 2021, consisted of three Democrats and two Republicans.

Brenda Priestly Jackson, one of those Democrats on both of the previous committees, played a central figure in the racial gerrymandering ruling, which repeatedly pointed to her statements and tweets as evidence that the City Council used race to segregate voters.

Priestly Jackson and Bowman were scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss hiring outside counsel, but that meeting was canceled.

The new committee consists of Freeman as the chairman, Bowman and Rory Diamond as co-vice chairs, and Nick Howland, Sam Newby, Randy White and Ju’Coby Pittman. Pittman, a Democrat, was appointed by then-Gov. Rick Scott to her seat in 2018.

The committee will need to redraw the city’s seven Westside and Northside districts, yet it includes only two of those districts’ council members.

While many other cities and counties also entrust lawmakers to draw their own district lines, a growing number of others across the country use independent redistricting commissions instead, including in Orlando, St. Petersburg and Tampa.

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...