A Florida judge on Wednesday said he will block a redistricting map drawn by Gov. Ron DeSantis and approved by legislators, ruling it unconstitutional.
Leon County Circuit Court Judge Layne Smith said the map by DeSantis and his staff would have removed Florida’s 5th Congressional District, which extends from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, and which is represented by black Democrat Al Lawson.
According to local reports, Lawson’s district is about 47 percent black but the DeSantis map would have made it between 12 and 25 percent black.
Smith ordered that a new map drafted by Harvard professor Stephen Ansolabehere be considered instead.
“I am finding that the enacted map is unconstitutional under the Fair District Amendment … because it diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect the representative of their choice,” Smith said during a court hearing conducted via Zoom on Wednesday, according to the Florida Phoenix.
He cited the U.S. Constitution, the Voting Rights Act, and Florida’s Fair Districts amendments to the state Constitution, which stops lawmakers from making maps to favor certain political parties, and made it clear he would rule in favor of voting rights groups challenging the DeSantis maps.
The League of Women Voters of Florida, Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute, Equal Ground Education Fund, Florida Rising Together, and several individual Florida voters filed a lawsuit in state court in Tallahassee last month (pdf), challenging the new congressional map.
“The district that has since been enacted and signed into law by the governor does disperse 367,000 African American votes between four different districts,” Smith said. “The African American population is nowhere near a plurality or a majority.”
The judge said he would issue a formal order on Thursday or Friday to prevent the maps from going into effect in November’s election. This also means the state can immediately appeal it.
Ultimately, the conservative state Supreme Court will likely need to resolve the dispute.
“It’s important that we get this to the next step so that this can be decided as quickly as possible, so that, whatever the answer is finally, ultimately, there is time for the [election] administrators to put into action whatever needs to be done to make it happen,” Smith said.
Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections in November, Florida is yet to finalize its redistricting maps after DeSantis in March vetoed the GOP-controlled Legislature’s proposed congressional districts. After that, the GOP-dominated House and Senate, instead of drawing new maps, asked DeSantis to do so.
However, the governor’s maps, too, have also been struck down.
DeSantis’s office said it will appeal the decision. “As Judge Smith implied, these complex constitutional matters of law were always going to be decided at the appellate level,” DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in an emailed statement to Newsweek. “We will undoubtedly be appealing his ruling and are confident the constitutional map enacted by the Florida Legislature and signed into law passes legal muster.”
Lawson, whose district was set to be impacted by the latest congressional map, said in a statement on Wednesday that he was pleased that the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court Judge struck down the DeSantis congressional map.
“The judge recognizes that this map is unlawful and diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect representatives of their choice,” Lawson said. “DeSantis is wrong for enacting this Republican-leaning map that is in clear violation of the U.S. and state constitutions.”
“It is critical to maintain congressional district five so minority voters have a voice at the ballot box in November. I am optimistic that future courts will also do what is right.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.