TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — For decades, Democratic Rep. Al Lawson’s Florida district has stretched like a rubber band from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, scooping up as many black voters as possible to comply with demands that minority communities band together so they can choose their own leaders and loosen their power in Washington.
But the state’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking the unusual step of asking the Florida Supreme Court whether Lawson’s black pluralistic district can be split into whiter — and more Republican — districts.
This type of request can typically face significant hurdles under state and federal laws designed to protect the representation of marginalized communities in national politics. But the ground rules could change after the U.S. Supreme Court this week sided with Republicans in Alabama to block efforts to ensure black voters are properly represented in Congress by adding a second majority black district in the state.
The ruling stunned civil rights groups, which have seen the court’s conservative majority routinely gnaw at the suffrage law for decades. While the rules of the law governing how to draw legislative lines based on race are still in effect, advocates worry that judges are poised to act with renewed fervor to eliminate remaining protections in historic legislation on civil rights. That, some worry, could embolden Republicans in places like Florida to target districts like Lawson’s and ultimately reduce the influence of black voters on Capitol Hill.
“It had an effect, as we saw, on the political power of black people at all levels of government,” said Kathryn Sadasivan, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who worked on the case. Alabama, on previous erosions of the Voting Rights Act.
Republicans argue that the Alabama case seeks to clarify redistricting rules. As it stands, mapmakers can be sued if they consider race too much, but also if they don’t consider race as mandated by the Voting Rights Act and omit districts with certain shares of minority population .
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“For the past 15 years, the court has said if race predominates, your card is going to be voided, but if you don’t look ‘race’ properly, you’re violating the Voting Rights Act, Jason Torchinsky, General Counsel of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, said Wednesday during a call with reporters. “The court has been very inconsistent with its advice to lawmakers here, and we hope Alabama’s decision will provide some clarity.”
Torchinsky is representing DeSantis in his case in Florida Supreme Court and would not comment on the case. Republicans argue that it is legally different from Alabama. The first hurdle is not the Voting Rights Act, but rather Florida’s redistricting law, which similarly prioritizes racial equity.
Torchinsky and other DeSantis lawyers have argued that courts must provide a clear legal standard for whether mappers can distort district lines in a pursuit of racial equity.
“After all,” Desantis’ attorneys wrote in the Florida Supreme Court of Lawson’s district justification, “government actions based on race are presumptively unconstitutional.”
The Florida case becomes the latest test of how state court systems are handling the politically charged redistricting battle.
A decade ago, the Florida Supreme Court struck down maps drawn by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature because they violated the state’s ban on partisan redistricting. This cycle, the state Senate proposed maps that mostly maintained the status quo in the state’s current 27 congressional seats while adding a 28th district that is expected to favor Republicans.
But, with Democrats doing better than expected in the national redistricting, DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, pushed for a more aggressive approach that could win three GOP seats.
But a decade ago, the state Supreme Court was overwhelmingly Democratic. Now it is dominated by Republican nominations.
The question in Florida, said David Vicuna of the anti-gerrymandering group Common Cause, is “will the courts set aside their own personal preferences and follow the law?” »
Similar questions swirl around the nation’s highest court and its 6-3 conservative majority.
Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, map makers are required to draw districts with a plurality or majority of African Americans or other minority groups if they are in a relatively compact area with a white people who vote very differently from them.
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For decades, the GOP has followed this approach as it has led to states, especially in the South, having a handful of districts filled with Democratic-leaning African-American voters, leaving the remaining seats whiter and more Republican. But a series of unfavorable court rulings over the past few decades and increased aggressiveness from Democrats have turned the tide.
“Now we’re seeing kind of a turnaround, where Democrats and suffrage seekers are saying, ‘You need to create more majority-minority districts,’ and Republicans are saying, ‘So we’re taking race too much into account. “.” said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine.
The problems came to a head in Alabama, where civil rights groups and Democrats joined forces to claim GOP-drawn maps of the state were unconstitutional because they grouped most black voters into one. of the seven congressional districts. A three-judge panel agreed, potentially opening the door to similar new black plurality districts in states with similar demographics like Louisiana and South Carolina.
But the Supreme Court on Monday suspended that order in a 5-4 ruling, saying it would hear full arguments during its fall term and issue a decision after that, likely next year. Judge Elena Kagan, writing for two other dissenting liberal justices, warned that the court was already reinterpreting the Voting Rights Act by stopping the lower court’s order.
Civil rights lawyers, while hoping they can persuade the court’s six-judge conservative majority to uphold the standards they’ve used for decades, acknowledge that the Voting Rights Act has been hollowed out over the years.
In 2013, the court ruled that the federal government could no longer use the VRA to require certain states with a history of discrimination to first organize the vote and map changes by the Department of Justice to ensure that they are not discriminatory. Two of the states that were under that mandate, Georgia and North Carolina, recently endorsed GOP-drawn maps that cut the share of black voters in two seats of African-American Democratic congressmen GK Butterfield and Sanford Bishop . Butterfield, of North Carolina, retired before the card was overturned by the Democratic majority of the North Carolina Supreme Court.
In Florida, DeSantis’ proposal would not only dismantle Lawson’s seat, but also reduce the share of black voters in a predominantly black South Florida district represented by Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick.
“So now we’re going to go from four minority access seats to two? In 2022? Democratic state Rep. Ramon Alexander, who is black, said in an interview. “That’s the most glaring thing possible.”