After Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed into law new congressional district lines that he pushed lawmakers to pass, the controversial plan immediately drew a legal challenge.
Voting-rights groups such as the League of Women Voters of Florida and 12 individual plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in Leon County circuit court contending the congressional map (SB 2-C) fails to comply with state redistricting laws and is “a naked attempt” by DeSantis to “rig” congressional elections for Republicans.
During a special legislative session this week, Republican lawmakers passed the plan, which was drawn up by DeSantis’ office. The bill drew fierce opposition, at least in part because it likely will reduce the number of Black Democrats elected to Congress.
“The League (of Women Voters) and the other plaintiffs have chosen to not stand by while a rogue governor and a complicit state Legislature make a mockery of Florida’s Constitution and try to silence the votes and voices of hundreds of thousands of Black voters,” League of Women Voters of Florida President Cecile Scoon said in a prepared statement.
During an event in Hialeah Gardens, DeSantis announced that he signed the redistricting plan but did not discuss it further.
Joining the League of Women Voters in the lawsuit were the Black Votes Matters Capacity Building Institute, the Equal Ground Education Fund, the League of Women Voters of Florida Education Fund, Florida Rising Together, and 12 registered Democrats from Duval, Leon, Seminole, Orange, Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Miami-Dade counties.
Named as defendants in the suit are Secretary of State Laurel Lee, Attorney General Ashley Moody, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, House Redistricting Chairman Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Senate Reapportionment Chairman Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero.
Representatives of the House and Senate didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Legal battles about the redistricting plan have been widely expected and could last beyond the 2022 elections. Candidates will qualify for the elections in June.
In discussing potential litigation on Thursday, Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, defended the new lines. He also alluded to a key issue about the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment and what are known as the Fair Districts amendments in the Florida Constitution.
“We’ve passed maps that are constitutional,” Fine said. “They will be litigated, and we will learn whether the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reigns supreme over the Florida state Constitution. That is the discussion at hand.”
The 38-page lawsuit contends that the map violates state law by gerrymandering districts to favor the GOP. It also argues that, in cutting the number of districts likely to elect Black Democrats from four to two, the plan violates the 2010 voter-approved Fair Districts amendments, which prohibit diluting the opportunity to elect racial and language minorities to Congress.
Democratic voting-rights attorney Marc Elias, whose law firm is among those representing the plaintiffs, called the DeSantis plan a “thumb in the nose” of the voters who supported the 2010 amendments.
During an online discussion Friday, Elias added that DeSantis vetoed an initial congressional redistricting plan passed by the Legislature because he “didn’t want a map that complied with the Fair District amendments.”
“And those legislators who went along with him yesterday, they knew that too,” Elias said. “And they abdicated their responsibility under the Florida Constitution and their duty as lawmakers to simply rubber-stamp a map that was sent to them by the governor.”
The map, which was passed by the Senate on Wednesday and the House on Thursday, is projected to increase the number of Republican congressional seats in Florida from 16 to 20, based on 2020 election results.
Pointing to a duty of the courts to uphold the state Constitution, the lawsuit said, “Governor DeSantis believes Florida’s judiciary will, just like the Legislature, stand aside while he runs roughshod over the Florida Constitution and the will of Florida voters.”
The map was approved in party-line votes of 24-15 in the Senate and 68-38 in the House. The House vote came after a rare protest by Black lawmakers that shut down House proceedings for about an hour.
DeSantis called the special session after vetoing the congressional redistricting plan passed by the Legislature last month. He contended the Legislature’s plan violated the Equal Protection Clause, in part because of a sprawling North Florida district. He said his proposal would be drawn in a “race-neutral manner.”
The DeSantis plan redraws Congressional District 5, which now runs from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee, to become a more-compact district in the Jacksonville area. The seat is currently held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat.
The current configuration of District 5 — renumbered District 4 in the new map — emerged after a court fight about lines drawn in 2012.
DeSantis’ plan makes significant changes in Central Florida’s District 10, which has been held by U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Black Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate, and would diminish Democratic strongholds in the Tampa Bay region.
Democratic lawmakers charged that their Republican colleagues were “bullied” by DeSantis into approving the governor’s map, with threats of local projects being vetoed and endorsements of primary challengers.
In a conference call with other South Florida Democrats on Friday, Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, said the DeSantis map “sacrifices Black representation on the altar of the governor’s political ambition, which is bad for our democracy.”
— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.