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Federal court upholds DeSantis-backed congressional map

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — A panel of federal judges upheld Florida’s congressional map, turning away a challenge that alleged it was discriminatory against Black voters after the district held by former Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, was dismantled.

The decision is a substantial victory for Republicans and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who muscled the map through Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature. The congressional map his administration crafted ultimately resulted in Republicans gaining four seats, helping the GOP flip the U.S. House during the 2022 midterm elections.

The three-judge panel unanimously ruled that those who challenged the map did not prove that Republican legislators discriminated against Black voters by adopting the map that was shaped by the DeSantis administration. Instead, the judges pointed out lawmakers initially resisted the governor’s plan only to then “run out of steam” and bow to the governor’s wishes.

“Consequently, whatever might be said about the Legislature’s decision to give up the fight for preserving a Black-performing district in North Florida, it did not amount to ratification of racial animus in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments,” the opinion read.

The ruling can be directly appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But even if it is, any appeal would be unlikely to resolve ahead of this year’s elections. A separate legal challenge against the map is also pending before the Florida Supreme Court.

Two of the three judges on the panel were appointed by Republican presidents.

DeSantis upended Florida’s once-a-decade redistricting process when he insisted on coming up with his own congressional map. The governor repeatedly argued that Lawson’s North Florida district — which stretched from Jacksonville to Tallahassee — was unconstitutional and an illegal race-based gerrymander, although there have not been court rulings that reinforce DeSantis’ assertions.

The governor in 2022 vetoed a map drawn by the Legislature, even though the lawmakers’ plan would have created a much smaller district centered around Jacksonville that could have allowed Black voters to elect a candidate of their choosing. After DeSantis’ veto, GOP legislative leaders relented and agreed to pass a map drawn up by the DeSantis administration.

Lawson, who is from Tallahassee, tried to run for another term under the revamped map that placed him in the same district as Panama City Republican Rep. Neal Dunn, but he lost by nearly 20 percentage points.

Voting-rights and civil rights organizations — including the Florida branch of the NAACP and Common Cause — as well as individual voters that sued contended DeSantis intentionally discriminated against Black voters. They argued his decision to veto the Legislature’s initial map bolstered their case as well.

“He did not act for some lofty race neutral reason,” attorneys for the group suing the governor wrote in a November brief. “Only an illegal desire to prevent North Florida’s Black voters from electing their candidate of choice can explain the Governor’s otherwise incoherent — yet, insistent — string of arguments and actions.”

U.S. appeals court Judge Adalberto Jordan, in a concurring opinion, wrote that while he supported the decision he added that the evidence presented at trial “convinces me that the governor did, in fact, act with race as a motivating factor.”

Attorneys representing the governor and Florida’s top elections official argued in their own post-trial brief that those who challenged the map lacked the proof to back up their allegations.

“Plaintiffs have failed to muster the necessary evidence to overcome the presumption of good faith to which the entitled map is entitled,” they argued. “There’s also no evidence of racial animus. Far from it. The map drawer from the governor’s office … drew the congressional districts at issue with compactness and adherence to geographic and political boundaries as his guideposts.”

The battle over Florida’s congressional map is now expected to shift back to the state courts. The case now pending before the Florida Supreme Court, while focusing on different legal arguments, also centers on Lawson’s dismantled seat. In the state case, a Florida circuit judge ruled that the redrawn district violated voter-approved redistricting standards enshrined in Florida’s constitution and he ordered the Legislature to redraw it.

But the 1st District Court of Appeal — in an unusual move where the entire court decided the case — contended that the judges were not bound by the previous state Supreme Court ruling that created the initial district held by Lawson. That court also asserted that not enough evidence was presented to show that Black voters were harmed by the new maps.