The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday declined to take up a challenge to the state’s new congressional map, making it increasingly likely that elections this year will be conducted under the aggressively partisan congressional boundaries championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The 4-1 decision represents a setback for Democrats and voting rights groups, who had hoped the state’s high court would block a redistricting plan they say disenfranchises Black Floridians. However, the court said it did not have jurisdiction to step in until an appeals court had ruled on the case.
With the June 17 qualifying deadline for candidates fast approaching, it would take a remarkably swift intervention by the lower courts to strike down the state’s map without upending the midterm elections. More likely, plaintiffs and the state are headed toward a lengthy legal battle over the constitutionality of the state’s new congressional borders that could take years to resolve.
Three of the four justices concurring in the opinion were appointed by DeSantis. Two justices recused themselves.
Justice Jorge Labarga dissented, arguing that the court had the power to intervene on redistricting matters – and did so last decade. Labarga, who was appointed by former Republican governor turned Democratic congressman Charlie Crist, wrote that inaction by the state Supreme Court would undermine voters who had approved an amendment to the state constitution that prohibited state lawmakers from diminishing the power of minority voters when drawing new maps.
“At stake here is the mandate of 62.9% of Florida voters who voted in 2010 for one of what are commonly known as the Fair Districts Amendments to the Florida Constitution – by any measure of comparison, 62.9% of the vote is an overwhelming margin,” Labarga wrote.
The map, drawn by DeSantis’ office and passed by the Republican-controlled legislature in April, gives Republicans an advantage in as many as 20 of 28 US House districts. It also controversially eliminates two districts where African Americans make up a plurality of voters. DeSantis had argued that those districts were illegally gerrymandered with race in mind.
Black Voters Matter, the League of Women Voters and other groups sued the state, asserting that the new map violated the state constitution by eliminating the two Black districts. The groups filed an injunction to halt the maps ahead of the 2022 midterms.
In May, Judge J. Layne Smith of the 2nd Circuit Court of Florida sided with the plaintiffs. He called the map unconstitutional because he said it disenfranchised minority voters by breaking up a northern Florida district represented by Democrat Al Lawson, who is Black. Smith, a DeSantis appointee, ruled that in the upcoming elections the state must replace the DeSantis map with one drawn by a Harvard University professor that maintained Lawson’s district.
However, the First District Court of Appeal swiftly ruled that Smith erred in that decision and reinstated the DeSantis map.
Republicans currently hold a 16-11 advantage in Florida’s US House delegation. The state added a 28th district following the 2020 US census.
This story has been updated with additional developments.