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Senate, house leaders dismissed from redistricting fight

Florida redistricting

A Leon County circuit judge Thursday ruled that top Florida lawmakers should not be defendants in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a congressional redistricting plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature in April.

Judge J. Lee Marsh said he will dismiss Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, Senate Reapportionment Chairman Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, and House Redistricting Chairman Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, from the case.

The lawsuit, however, will continue against Secretary of State Cord Byrd and the overall Senate and House.

Senate and House attorneys raised a series of arguments to try to get the legislative leaders dismissed from the case, including that their involvement is redundant because the Senate and House are defendants. Also, the attorneys pointed to what is known as “legislative immunity,” which helps shield individual lawmakers from legal challenges to actions they take.

After about 45 minutes of arguments Thursday, Marsh agreed with the arguments raised by the Senate and House attorneys.

“I find that they (the legislative leaders) are not proper parties to the suit,” he said. “They do, as it relates to this matter, enjoy legislative immunity.”

Marsh also said the legislative leaders were “redundant and duplicative” defendants in the case, which seeks a redrawn congressional redistricting plan.

“It is the finding of this court that even if the court were to grant the relief asked by the plaintiffs, that that could be accomplished by the defendants that are presently in this after the motion to dismiss (involving the leaders),” Marsh said.

Attorneys for voting-rights groups and other plaintiffs filed the lawsuit April 22, alleging that the map passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature violates the Florida Constitution. The case focuses heavily on a 2010 constitutional amendment, known as the Fair Districts Amendment, that set guidelines for redistricting, including barring plans that would diminish the ability of minority voters to “elect representatives of their choice.”

The map passed in April is expected to increase the number of Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation and trim the number of Black members of the delegation, based on past voting patterns.

The highest-profile part of the case has involved Congressional District 5, a sprawling North Florida district held in recent years by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat. The new map overhauled that district, putting it in the Jacksonville area and making it less likely to elect a minority.

Leon County Circuit Judge J. Layne Smith in May issued a temporary injunction against the plan because of Congressional District 5. But the 1st District Court of Appeal last month tossed out the injunction, sending the case back to circuit court.

While the legal battling continues, the new districts will be used in this year’s elections. Marsh, who replaced Smith in the case June 30, said Thursday he hopes it will be resolved in time for the 2024 elections.

“This is going to be one of my higher-priority cases,” Marsh said.

News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.

Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida