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A lawsuit asks courts to settle a DeSantis-legislature fight over a North Florida congressional seat

Al Lawson for Congress

TALLAHASSEE — With Gov. Ron DeSantis vowing to veto a congressional redistricting plan, a lawsuit filed late Friday asks a federal court to set new U.S. House districts that would be used in this fall’s elections.

The lawsuit, filed in the federal Northern District of Florida by two groups and five voters, is similar to a case filed Friday in Leon County circuit court. The crux is that DeSantis’ threat to veto a redistricting plan drawn up by state lawmakers jeopardizes the chances of reaching agreement on a map — and that judges should step in.

“Unlike the Legislature, Governor DeSantis has demonstrated that he is not willing to abide by the law, or sign a congressional plan that does, making an impasse highly likely,” said the federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of the groups Common Cause Florida and FairDistricts Now and voters in Leon, Gadsden, Orange, Lee and Miami-Dade counties. “To date, the Legislature and Governor DeSantis have not reached agreement on a congressional district plan.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote that a three-judge panel of the federal district court should implement “a new congressional district plan that complies” with the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit contends that without a new map, the state could be left with lines based on the 2010 U.S. census rather than the 2020 census, which would be unconstitutional because of population changes.

The lawsuit names as defendants DeSantis, Secretary of State Laurel Lee, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and four lawmakers who led redistricting committees and subcommittees.

The Leon County case was filed on behalf of nine residents of Orange, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Marion, Lee and Duval counties. It named as defendants Lee and Attorney General Ashley Moody.

The lawsuits are the latest twists in the once-a-decade reapportionment process after DeSantis in January proposed a congressional plan that differed significantly from maps being considered by the Republican-controlled Senate and House. Ultimately, trying to satisfy DeSantis, lawmakers passed an unusual plan that included a primary map and a backup map.

But DeSantis remained dissatisfied and said he would veto the plan. DeSantis wants a map that likely would be more favorable to Republicans. But critics argue that changes sought by DeSantis would be unconstitutional, at least in part because they could lead to fewer minorities getting elected.

Lawmakers have not formally sent their plan to DeSantis, but uncertainty remained Friday as the House and Senate finished most of their work in the annual legislative session.

Simpson told reporters that it’s too early to say what will happen if DeSantis vetoes the legislative proposal.

“If the governor vetoes the congressional map, it'll either be handled again through the Legislature or through the court system,” Simpson said. “And we don't know the result of that yet. So, I don't really know that it would be proper to comment.”

The 25-page federal lawsuit points to a June deadline for candidates to qualify for congressional races. Adding to the questions is that Florida will see its congressional delegation grow from 27 to 28 seats this year because of population growth, requiring a new district to be factored into the map.

“Given the circumstances, it is a near-certainty that there will be an impasse requiring judicial intervention,” the federal lawsuit said. “It is highly likely that the Legislature and the governor will fail to pass a lawful congressional redistricting plan in time to prepare for and be used during the upcoming 2022 congressional election, leaving the existing plan in place … and denying Florida voters’ fundamental right to vote in equally proportioned districts.”

Lawmakers also passed redrawn state House and Senate maps, which did not draw challenges at the Florida Supreme Court — a fact that the federal lawsuit noted. DeSantis did not have veto power over the House and Senate maps.

“The Legislature has shown that it largely has the capacity to comply with state and federal law,” the lawsuit said. “For instance, in February 2022, the Legislature passed state legislative maps for the Florida House and Senate, both of which reasonably complied with the law and, for the first time in state history, drew no objections from third parties when they were reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court.”

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News Service of Florida