DeSantis, critics fight over redistricting that would dramatically alter Al Lawson’s district

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters and members of the media after a bill signing on...
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters and members of the media after a bill signing on Nov. 18, 2021, in Brandon, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)(Associated Press)
Published: Feb. 7, 2022 at 4:25 PM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (NSF) - Critics of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request for the state Supreme Court to issue a quick opinion about potentially revamping a sprawling North Florida congressional district argued Monday the “ill-conceived attempt to hijack” the redistricting process is improper and outside the court’s jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, DeSantis and supporters of his request said in briefs that they are simply seeking “needed judicial guidance” as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process.

The issue centers on what is now Congressional District 5, which stretches about 200 miles from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee and was designed to help elect a minority candidate. It is held by Democrat Al Lawson, who is Black.

DeSantis last week asked the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion about dramatically changing the design of the district to make it more compact and only in Northeast Florida. The House and Senate will ultimately have to agree on a congressional map, which then would go to DeSantis, who has veto power.

In briefs submitted Monday to the Supreme Court, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Republican legislative leaders and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry backed DeSantis request for an advisory opinion.

Curry argued that such an opinion would let voters in his city know “the district in which they vote and the candidates for whom they vote will withstand constitutional scrutiny.”

The groups Common Cause Florida, Fair Districts Now and All On The Line Florida and South Florida Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick submitted briefs opposed to DeSantis’ request.

Henry Coxe III, an attorney for Common Cause Florida and Fair Districts Now, contended the Florida Constitution does not provide the governor with the right to ask the court to advise him whether he should veto a hypothetical congressional redistricting bill.

“Any other result would implicate the constitutional principle of separation of powers by entangling the (Supreme) Court in the legislative drafting process,” Coxe wrote.

Cherfilus-McCormick, who is Black, said that beyond the potential impact to minority voters in District 5, the governor’s proposed map “significantly diminishes” the voting strength of minorities in her South Florida district.

The Senate has passed a congressional map that generally would keep the current design of District 5. But DeSantis’ request paused the House congressional redistricting efforts.

It was not immediately clear when the court will rule on DeSantis’ request for an advisory opinion.

DeSantis’ proposed map would also vastly alter an Orlando-area district held by U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Black Democrat, and potentially would increase the number of Republicans in Florida’s congressional delegation from the current 16 to 18.

In a Feb. 1 letter to Chief Justice Charles Canady seeking an advisory opinion, DeSantis focused, in part, on what is known as a “non-diminishment standard” in the Florida Constitution. That standard prevents districts from being drawn that will diminish the ability of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice.

The letter also said, “Florida’s non-diminishment standard — like the (federal) Voting Rights Act’s non-diminishment standard — is a potent, race-based solution to a race-based problem. I ask for your opinion to help me be sufficiently conscious of race to comply with the Florida Constitution’s anti-diminishment provision but avoid being so conscious of race that my actions could violate the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.”

A brief filed Monday by DeSantis highlights the role of the executive in the once-a-decade reapportionment process — specifically his veto power — and raised questions about the diminishment issue.

DeSantis argued the need for guidance about the Florida Constitution’s “minority-voting-protection provision, including whether it requires a district in northern Florida that stretches hundreds of miles to connect a black population in Jacksonville with a black population in Gadsden and Leon counties so that they can elect a candidate of their choice, even though not a majority.”

Thomas Zehnder, an attorney for All On The Line Florida, which is linked to the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, argued the governor doesn’t have a role in drawing the congressional lines, even if he has power to veto the ultimate legislation.

“The governor’s request for an advisory opinion at the 11th hour --- after the Senate has already passed a congressional plan --- is an ill-conceived attempt to hijack the process by asking this court to make decisions about congressional district lines before the Legislature has even enacted a plan,” Zehnder wrote.

Coxe wrote that DeSantis’ request goes beyond part of the Constitution that allows him to seek opinions on executive powers and duties.

“This request seeks an advisory opinion purportedly to inform his possible, hypothetical, exercise of his legislative veto power on a bill that has not yet been drafted, much less passed by both houses of the Legislature or presented to the governor for signing,” Coxe wrote. “In this context, it is well-settled that the governor’s query about his veto power asks about a legislative function not susceptible to an advisory opinion. Such a request for guidance from this court before a bill is passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor is improper.”

But House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, jointly backed DeSantis on what they said was the “narrow scope of the question” posed by the governor that “would provide needed judicial guidance.”

Meanwhile, Moody said the governor isn’t asking if his proposed map was unconstitutional, but if “the Florida Constitution requires the drawing of a certain congressional district --- a matter that will inform, though not conclusively control, the outcome of the congressional reapportionment process.”

“There is a strong interest in ensuring that this process proceeds under a correct understanding of the requirements of the Florida Constitution,” Moody said in the brief. “If the Legislature enacts a map inconsistent with those requirements, the result would be significant uncertainty on the part of voters and candidates regarding the validity of the congressional maps.”

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