This morning, the state of Florida will square off with voting-rights plaintiffs in Tallahassee in a high-stakes battle over the constitutionality of protections for Black voters.
A live stream of the oral arguments is available at The Florida Channel.
The Background: Last year, civil-rights groups sued the state over its congressional map, alleging violations of Black voting power. Gov. Ron DeSantis initially defended the map but, in a surprise joint filing this month, the state’s lawyers admitted the new map diminishes Black voters’ electoral influence.
The Legal Stakes: The hearing follows a stark admission that the congressional map violated the state’s safeguards against diminishing the electoral influence of racial minorities. His lawyers will argue that those protections infringe upon the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
The two sides will present their arguments before 2nd Judicial Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh, who could approve a new map in time for the 2024 elections. The case focuses on North Florida’s congressional districts and whether voter-approved protections in the state constitution for minority voting rights violate the U.S. Constitution.
At the heart of the case is the state’s “non-diminishment” or “non-retrogression” standard, mirroring Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which DeSantis has asked the court to strike down.
Political Implications: If DeSantis gets his way, Florida courts would advance a conservative argument – that trying to preserve the political voice of Black voters violates the U.S. Constitution. “It’s a very aggressive play on the part of Gov. DeSantis and Republicans, really pushing toward a vision of a race-blind constitution,” said Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.
The case could ultimately end up at the U.S. Supreme Court with a decision that would impact not only Florida’s Fair Districts Amendment but also the federal Voting Rights Act.
Limiting the Case: The state and plaintiffs agreed to limit arguments, dropping partisan gerrymandering and race-discrimination claims. In exchange, the state agreed to an expedited timeline to potentially restore a district from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, formerly held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee.
DeSantis’ Tactics: DeSantis’ legal tactics reveal his willingness to challenge voter-approved Fair District provisions and even defy the state Constitution if he deems it conflicts with federal law. “The non-diminishment provision is an integral part of what we tried to do” with the amendment, said Ellen Freidin, who led the campaign to pass the constitutional change in 2010.
Community Reactions: The governor’s intervention led to tensions with Republican leadership in the Legislature. Eventually, DeSantis replaced a district that had elected Black Democrats for three decades with a Republican, white-majority district, sparking protests from House Democrats. “It is so on brand for Ron DeSantis and the Republican-led legislature to continually attack Black communities, Black districts,” said Rep. Angie Nixon, a Jacksonville representative.
Looking Ahead: A separate federal trial next month will determine if the state intentionally discriminated against Black voters, a more challenging task for plaintiffs who must prove intent.