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SCOTUS Ruling on Alabama Maps Has Florida Democrats Hopeful

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that Alabama’s congressional map was a violation of the Voting Rights Act, and plaintiffs in two Florida court cases are optimistic that the ruling will set a precedent.

Ten years ago, a lawsuit led to the redrawing of Florida congressional maps that were criticized as blatantly gerrymandered.

Now, in 2023, the bombshell U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down district lines in Alabama has plaintiffs in two Florida court cases confident that history can repeat itself.

A win in court in either case, experts say, could help Democrats take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“It could be really close,” said Matt Isbell, a Democratic elections analyst who runs the MCIMaps site, about the House campaign in 2024.

“If you do end up getting a new Democratic seat in North Florida, that could be one difference,” Isbell said. “If we’re talking about a situation where the Democrats end up taking back the House by one or two seats, it’s hard to argue redistricting wasn’t pretty important there.”

In the Alabama case, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh aligned with the court’s liberals in ruling that the state’s congressional map with one majority Black seat out of seven districts, in a state where more than one in four residents is Black, was a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

The state will likely have to draw a new map for next year’s elections.

“The Alabama case really puts a kibosh on the notion that the courts are not considering race to be a valid issue,” Isbell said. “The Alabama case is all about that specific issue.”

Two sets of plaintiffs are attempting to make the same thing happen here in Florida, where the state’s 2022 congressional maps were imposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

The maps, which eliminated a Black access district in North Florida and watered down Black voting power in Central Florida, ultimately led to Republicans winning four more seats in Congress and helped the GOP win back the House in Washington.

Common Cause and other groups are suing Florida in federal court on racial discrimination grounds, citing the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution ratified in the wake of the Civil War.

The League of Women Voters Florida and other groups, meanwhile, are suing Florida in state court over the maps, just like they did a decade ago.

Their suit is based on the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution, which bans partisan and racial gerrymandering.

Neither lawsuit directly compares to the Alabama case, which was decided on an interpretation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

But plaintiffs and elections experts say the precedent established by the decision will play a role in whether one or both of the suits succeed.

“One of DeSantis’ defenses … is basically that race-based drawing of districts is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause,” said Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. “And the Supreme Court in the Alabama case basically said, ‘No, actually you can draw districts for race-based reasons.’ So that piece of the defense is weakened for DeSantis and the Florida State Government.”

DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

Echoes of 2015

Cecile M. Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the Alabama ruling was based on the same section of the Voting Rights Act that inspired the Fair Districts amendment

The suit states that “the Legislature appeared to follow the Fair Districts Amendment in good faith” at the beginning of the redistricting cycle. “Governor Ron DeSantis, however, had other ideas.”

“He unilaterally declared the Fair Districts Amendment unconstitutional,” the suit states. “He vetoed the Legislature’s congressional plan and convened a special legislative session, leaving the Legislature little choice but to consider and pass his own redistricting scheme. … The DeSantis Plan does not comply with the Fair Districts Amendment. It does noteven purport to.”

Scoon said the league’s suit also is bolstered by their previous victory in the state Supreme Court in 2015. The court found that GOP consultants submitted maps with the intent to produce more Republican seats in Congress.

When the Legislature at the time couldn’t agree on new maps, the court turned to the league and the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They drew the districts that were in place until the latest maps were enacted last year following the 2020 Census.

That decision, Scoon said, found that Fair Districts “was enforceable, clear, and an example to every other state in the union. So we already have a super powerful ruling in our favor.”

The state Supreme Court, which ultimately made that ruling, is vastly different from 2015’s which had a liberal majority. DeSantis has nominated five of the seven justices, making it 6-1 conservative.

“We have a Florida Supreme Court that’s been stacked by DeSantis appointees,” McDonald said. “… Although the decision for Alabama is a positive for the plaintiffs in the case, I still think they have a very steep hill to climb in order to have the Florida Supreme Court overturn Florida’s congressional districts.”

Isbell, though, said the likelihood that the map gets overturned “is very high.”

“I feel like the logic is pretty solid,” Isbell said. “…The law is just so clear-cut. This is exactly what Fair Districts was designed about.”

History of Discrimination

In the federal case, Common Cause vice president Kathay Feng said her group’s lawsuit also is supported by the Alabama decision, despite focusing on a different section of law.

The case, filed in the Northern District of Florida, alleges that the state violated the 14th and 15th Amendments by actively working to disenfranchise Black voters.

“In an unprecedented overreach of executive power, the Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, bullied the Florida Legislature into adopting [the] congressional map, based on invidious discrimination against Black Floridians,” the suit states. “… These laws have been intentionally designed to make voting more difficult for Black Floridians in order to suppress the Black vote.”

The 14th Amendment bars denying people “the equal protection of the laws,” while the 15th mandates that voting rights “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race [or] color.”

“The Alabama ruling sent a very clear message that the court was going to look closely at the history of discrimination,” Feng said. “… Florida has a history of discriminating against black voters. And the impact was directly to take away the opportunity to vote from Black voters in the panhandle of Florida.”

Isbell, though, said because it was based on the Voting Rights Act, the Alabama ruling “is much more important when it comes to the state case than the federal case. I’ll just be honest, I think the federal case is very tough with the conservative courts we have right now.”

‘Crackpot’ Wild Card

McDonald stressed that the Alabama decision was first and foremost a victory for Black voters. But he acknowledges it’s also a win for Democrats.

“This is really about racial representation, not about political representation,” McDonald said. “But I understand that you can’t disentangle the two entirely. … You can’t escape the political consequences of it.”

Besides Alabama, the decision also plays a direct role in redrawing Louisiana’s maps to create fairer Black representation.

While Florida could get more blue seats if the lawsuits are successful, other cases in Ohio and North Carolina could end up helping Republicans. New York Democrats, meanwhile, might be successful in reversing court decisions from last year that threw out Democratic-leaning maps.

“By like the spring of next year, whatever maps seem to be in play at that point will be probably locked in,” Isbell said. “So unless Florida gets through a lot of these trials and appeals in rapid succession, I’m not sure if it’ll be [overturned by] 2024 or 2026.”

McDonald added, though, that the Supreme Court’s election rights docket was not yet over. A ruling on the validity of the “independent state legislature” theory could strip all state courts from the ability to rule on redistricting and give all that power to legislatures.

It’s been called a “crackpot” conservative theory, McDonald said.

“[But] there are Supreme Court justices who have embraced it, and we certainly could see a ruling in that direction,” he said. “… That’s another big wild card sitting out there that could completely upend the cart altogether.”

©2023 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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