A Florida judge has tossed the North Florida redistricting plan engineered by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Judge J. Lee Marsh ruled that DeSantis' congressional map violated the state constitution.
A contingent of voting rights groups and ex-Democratic Rep. Al Lawson praised the judge's decision.
A Florida judge on Saturday struck down a congressional map crafted by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, arguing that the lines violated the state's anti-gerrymandering protections and diminished the voting strength of Black citizens.
In the ruling, Second Judicial Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh ruled that the North Florida lines endorsed by DeSantis went against the state constitution's Fair Districts Amendment by "dismantling a congressional district that enabled Black voters to elect their candidates of choice under the previous plan."
Under the Fair Districts provision approved by voters, districts can't be formulated in a manner that would "diminish" the opportunity for minority voters to select a candidate of their choice.
But when DeSantis submitted his own map last year in lieu of the version that had been previously drawn by the GOP-controlled legislature, he tore apart then-Democratic Rep. Al Lawson's 5th Congressional District, which ran from areas west of Tallahassee to Jacksonville.
The move created surrounding districts that were significantly more Republican. After the Florida Supreme Court left DeSantis' map in place for the 2022 midterms, the GOP picked up four House seats, giving them a 20-8 statewide edge in the state's congressional delegation.
DeSantis said that Lawson's plurality-Black district as drawn was unconstitutional, arguing that it was an illegal racial gerrymander.
But the judge rejected that argument, which now paves the way for a restoration of Lawson's district or the creation of one with a similar configuration.
Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd said in a text message that he disagreed with the judge's decision and would appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, according to Politico.
A contingent of groups, including Black Voters Matter, Equal Ground, Florida Rising, and the League of Women Voters of Florida, sued the state over the congressional maps one day after DeSantis signed them into law. They alleged he had used the bully pulpit of his office to push legislative Republicans into accepting his version.
Jasmine Burney-Clark, the founder of Equal Ground, pointed to the judge's decision as one that would restore the voting power of Black Floridians.
"Voters should be empowered to pick their leaders, not the other way around," she said in a statement on Saturday. "We applaud the judge's ruling recognizing the need to restore the voting power of Black Floridians in North Florida, and paving the way for a map that empowers voters in that region to select a candidate of their choice."
Both the state and the aforementioned voting rights groups are set to ask that the Florida Supreme Court take up the case directly, which would allow them to bypass the regular process that would involve a lower appellate court. And they are also poised to put forward a schedule that would allow the Florida Supreme Court to make a decision by Dec. 31.
The Florida legislature will have the first opportunity to construct a new map, which the plaintiffs may challenge. But if the legislature doesn't draw a new map, both sides would likely sign off on a district stretching from Duval County — whose government is consolidated with Jacksonville — to majority-Black Gadsden County.
Lawson, who ran for reelection in 2022 and lost to Republican Rep. Neal Dunn in the conservative 2nd congressional district, praised the judge's ruling.
"I am pleased the Court struck down the DeSantis congressional map, finding that his office and the Legislature violated the Constitution. This decision is a victory for the people of North Florida, particularly those communities of color who have been historically disenfranchised," he said in a statement on Saturday.
"There is still more work to be done, so any decision about my future plans will come when this process is complete. My only goal right now is to ensure that fair representation is returned to the people of North Florida," he added.
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