By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Seeking a final ruling before the legislative session starts in January, both sides in a battle over a congressional redistricting plan asked an appeals court Friday to fast-track the case to the Florida Supreme Court.
The joint request by attorneys for the state and voting-rights groups was expected: They had filed a document last month in Leon County circuit court signaling that they would seek to effectively bypass the 1st District Court of Appeal and go straight to the Supreme Court.
But the request underscored the high stakes of the case, as Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh ruled Sept. 2 that a redistricting plan pushed through the Legislature last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis was unconstitutional.
“This appeal requires immediate resolution by the Florida Supreme Court to provide certainty to voters, potential candidates and elections officials regarding the configuration and validity of Florida’s congressional districts sufficiently in advance of the 2024 elections,” the request filed at the Tallahassee-based appeals court said. “Given the inherently time-sensitive issues presented in elections cases, redistricting and other election-related cases are routinely certified for immediate resolution by the Florida Supreme Court.”
The request is aimed at receiving a Supreme Court decision before the Jan. 9 start of the 2024 legislative session. That would allow lawmakers to redraw the map, if needed, and provide a period for possible additional legal wrangling before an April qualifying period in next year’s congressional elections.
“This expedited schedule would afford the Legislature an opportunity to enact a remedial plan, if necessary, before congressional districts must be finalized ahead of the 2024 elections,” the motion said. “It would also accommodate the potential need for additional remedial proceedings by the trial (circuit) court on remand. And this expedited schedule would provide sufficient time for Florida’s elections officials at the state and local level — many of which are non-parties to this proceeding — to implement any changes to Florida’s enacted plan that might be required following the appellate and potential remedial processes.”
Attorneys for Secretary of State Cord Byrd and the state House and Senate quickly filed a notice of appeal after Marsh ruled in favor of a coalition of voting-rights groups in a fight that centers on North Florida’s Congressional District 5. Under a procedural rule, the notice triggered an automatic stay of Marsh’s decision while the appeal plays out.
Congressional District 5, which in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson, was overhauled in the redistricting process. White Republicans won all North Florida congressional districts in the November elections after the map was redrawn.
Marsh issued a 55-page decision that sided with voting-rights groups that argued the new map violated a 2010 constitutional amendment known as the Fair Districts amendment, which set standards for redistricting. Part of that amendment barred drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.”
“Under the stipulated facts (in the lawsuit), plaintiffs have shown that the enacted plan results in the diminishment of Black voters’ ability to elect their candidate of choice in violation of the Florida Constitution,” Marsh wrote.
DeSantis and the state’s attorneys have argued that the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause prevented using a district similar to the previous shape of Congressional District 5 because it would involve racial gerrymandering.
The district in the past stretched from Jacksonville to Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, incorporating areas that had large Black populations. The 2022 plan put the district in the Jacksonville area.
The qualifying period for 2024 congressional candidates will be April 22 to April 26, according to the state Division of Elections website. But Friday’s motion said the state will start accepting qualifying documents on April 8.