TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida's controversial congressional districts are again under legal scrutiny. A large panel of judges in Florida's First District Court of Appeal considered Tuesday whether to overturn a lower decision from last month, ordering a redraw of Florida's current map.
The eventual decision will not only impact Floridians but potentially change the narrow balance of power in Congress.
Almost every one of the First DCA's judges was in attendance for the morning's oral arguments. They listened for more than an hour, peppering attorneys for the state and Black voting rights groups with questions.
Plaintiffs were seeking to protect a lower court's ruling from last month that ordered a redraw of Florida's current map. Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh said in the September decision that the latest congressional boundaries, backed by the governor, diminished Black voting power in the state.
"There was always a historically performing district for Black voters in North Florida," Jyoti Jasrasaria, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said.
Lawyers representing Florida's secretary of state and legislature pushed back. They consider what's in force — fair.
"The plaintiffs here seek to invalidate the state's race-neutral map in North Florida and replace it with one that contains a district guaranteeing that Black preferred candidates always win," Henry Whitaker, representing Secretary of State Cord Byrd, said.
Former U.S. Rep. Al Lawson's old district, Congressional District 5, is at the heart of the dispute. It was created by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 and stretched about 200 miles from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, until last year.
In 2022, Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed the current map which chopped Lawson's territory into four smaller districts, after rejecting two options from the Legislature. The result was that the once reliably blue territory elected four white Republicans during the midterms.
"We are not going to have a 200-mile gerrymander that divvies up people based on the color of their skin," DeSantis said in April 2022. "That is wrong. That is not the way we've governed in the State of Florida."
While Circuit Judge Marsh agreed with plaintiffs that the change was diminishment and unfair under Florida's Fair Districts Amendment, some appellate judges sounded doubtful.
"Is it your argument that under Section Five, a plaintiff could prevail in a case — defending a non-compact, bizarrely drawn seat awarded by a state court?" said Judge Bradford L. Thomas at one point.
Neither group of attorneys wanted to comment following the day's arguments. Though those seeking the redraw remained hopeful it would happen — potentially before 2024.
"Unless you live in South Florida, and you're a person of color — a Black person — you don't have the ability to elect a candidate of your choice," Genesis Robinson with Equal Ground Florida, one of the groups challenging the current map, said. "That's a problem."
There wasn't a timeline for the appellate panel to rule — but with the election approaching time was expected to play a role.
Meanwhile, a federal three-judge panel is set to rule before the end of the year on a similar case working through the U.S. court system. Depending on the decision, that case might be destined for the U.S. Supreme Court.