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Voting-rights groups want the redistricting case to go straight to the Florida Supreme Court

Pointing to “urgency” as the 2022 elections near, attorneys for voting-rights groups requested Friday that a battle over a new congressional redistricting plan be put on a fast track to the Florida Supreme Court.

The attorneys filed a court document seeking to essentially bypass the 1st District Court of Appeal, a procedural move known as seeking certification to the Supreme Court.

The request came after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration appealed a ruling Thursday by Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith, who issued a temporary injunction against the redistricting plan.

The attorneys for voting-rights groups and other plaintiffs wrote that time remains to move forward with a “remedial” redistricting plan before the 2022 elections, but “that window will likely close within a few weeks.” Qualifying for elections will be held in mid-June, with primary elections on Aug. 23 and the general election on Nov. 8.

“This appeal, therefore, cannot wait for briefing, argument, and judgment in this court (the 1st District Court of Appeal), even under an expedited schedule,” the seven-page document said. “No matter how quickly this court moves, the time the parties would spend briefing the issues at stake and the court would spend weighing their competing arguments, would severely subtract from the time available for the Supreme Court to receive the same briefing and complete the same analysis in order to provide final word on the constitutionality of the enacted plan.”

The voting-rights groups and other plaintiffs filed the lawsuit April 22 after the Republican-dominated Legislature passed a redistricting plan that would boost the number of GOP representatives in Florida’s congressional delegation. The plaintiffs also asked for a temporary injunction, focusing on an overhaul of North Florida’s Congressional District 5.

Smith said during a hearing Wednesday that he would grant the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary injunction and require redrawing part of the plan, which DeSantis pushed through the Legislature during an April special session.

The judge followed by issuing a 21-page written ruling Thursday, prompting attorneys for the state to quickly file a notice of taking the case to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

The notice triggered an automatic stay of Smith’s ruling, effectively meaning that the ruling will be on hold until the appeal plays out. A court rule requires automatic stays when the state files such appeals, though it is possible for plaintiffs to try to get stays lifted.

As of late Friday afternoon, the two sides had not filed detailed briefs in the Tallahassee-based appeals court.

But the case centers on District 5, which, after a 2015 Florida Supreme Court decision, has stretched from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee. It was designed to help elect a Black representative and is held by Congressman Al Lawson, a Black Democrat.’

Under the DeSantis-backed redistricting plan, lawmakers dramatically changed the district to condense it in the Jacksonville area. DeSantis contended that keeping the sprawling east-west shape of the district would involve racial gerrymandering and violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In a court document filed Monday, the state’s attorneys wrote that the Equal Protection Clause bars “race-based sorting of voters” without a “compelling interest” and a “narrowly tailored” means to achieve that interest.

But the plaintiffs in the lawsuit said the revamped district violated a 2010 state constitutional amendment — known as the Fair Districts amendment — that set standards for redistricting. Part of that amendment bars diminishing the ability of minority voters to “elect representatives of their choice.”

In issuing the temporary injunction, Smith wrote that the plaintiffs had shown a “substantial likelihood of proving that the enacted plan violates the non-diminishment standard” of the Fair Districts amendment.

Smith also rejected the DeSantis administration’s arguments about the Equal Protection Clause and whether a compelling interest existed for keeping the east-west shape of District 5. He wrote, in part, that “compliance with the Fair Districts amendment’s non-diminishment provision is a compelling state interest.”

Also, he wrote that “addressing the history of voting-related racial discrimination and a lack of representation in North Florida in itself constitutes a compelling state interest.”

“Plaintiffs presented evidence that, for much of Florida’s history, Black voters in the state have been unable to participate equally in the electoral process, with Black residents of North Florida experiencing particularly severe burdens in access to the franchise,” wrote Smith, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2015 as a county judge and was elevated by DeSantis in 2020 to circuit judge.

In the injunction, Smith ordered the use of a map proposed by an expert witness for the plaintiffs. That map would keep the east-west configuration.

Smith also rejected arguments by the DeSantis administration that it was too late to change the map before this year’s elections.

“We are not days or weeks from an election,” Smith wrote. “Florida’s primary, one of the latest in the nation, is set for August 23, nearly four months away.”

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