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DeSantis asks Florida supreme court to weigh in on congressional map

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in another sign that he may veto a new congressional map being drawn by the state Legislature, asked the state’s highest court on Tuesday to tell him whether or not a 200-mile congressional district linking Black neighborhoods must be kept intact.

DeSantis’ recently submitted his own proposed map that throws out the district now held by Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat from Tallahassee.

But so far his proposal — which would likely increase the number of Republican-held congressional seats in Florida if enacted — has gotten a muted reaction from the GOP-controlled Legislature. The state Senate instead last month passed a map that keeps Lawson’s seat relatively the same.

In a five-page letter requesting an advisory opinion, DeSantis asked Supreme Court justices whether or not Florida’s voter-approved redistricting standards require the seat — which stretches across the northern border from just west of Tallahassee to downtown Jacksonville — to remain as it is currently drawn even though it is not currently a majority Black district. The seat has nearly 44 percent Black voting age population.

“I ask whether the Florida Constitution’s non-diminishment standard mandates a sprawling congressional district in northern Florida that stretches hundreds of miles from East to West solely to connect black voters in Jacksonville with black voters in Gadsden and Leon Counties (with few in between) so that they may elect candidates of their choice,” wrote DeSantis to the high court.

The governor’s request acknowledged that it was the state Supreme Court that signed off on a map that included the current configuration for Florida’s 5th congressional district.

At the time, the court, which still had a liberal majority, approved a minority-access district that stretched across north Florida instead of one that connected Black neighborhoods in Orlando and Jacksonville. Justices contended that the map initially produced by the Legislature had been tainted by partisan motivations that were barred by the Fair Districts initiative approved by voters in 2010.

But DeSantis has remade the high court with several key appointments since he took office in early 2019. Chief Justice Charles Canady and the court’s conservative majority since then have already overturned multiple previous decisions and rulings.

DeSantis’ letter also notes that Lawson’s district was approved prior to a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in which two North Carolina congressional districts were thrown out because state legislators relied too heavily on race when drawing them.

He specifically asked for justices to spell out when the rights of minority voters to choose a candidate had been diminished: “But is that so even if the district in the existing plan was designed solely to cobble together enough minority voters from distant and distinct geographic areas to elect candidates of their choice despite not constituting a majority? Or must the benchmark be confined to the minority population in a reasonably cohesive geographic area?”

The governor added that “Florida’s non-diminishment standard-like the Voting Rights Act’s non-diminishment standard-is a potent, race-based solution to a race-based problem. I ask for your opinion to help me be sufficiently conscious of race to comply with the Florida Constitution’s anti-diminishment provision but avoid being so conscious of race that my actions could violate the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.”

During a Tuesday press conference in Miami, DeSantis predicted that he and the Legislature would be able to reach an agreement on a congressional map while at the same time slamming what he called “monstrosities” drawn up in New York and Illinois.

“I think we are going to be able to get to a good spot and have a good product,” said DeSantis, who did not note the request to the Supreme Court. “We’ve got to get a couple of legal issues squared away.”

The map that the governor’s general counsel submitted to legislators last month would cut in half the number of African American districts from four on current proposed congressional maps to two, while boosting the number of seats Donald Trump would have won in 2020 to 18 from the 16 on the map being considered by the GOP-led Florida Senate.

Lawson blasted the proposal when it was first rolled out, saying it would “negatively affect people of color” and would invite a swift legal challenge.

“My district includes a large minority and urban core, protecting minority voting access is critical to serving the needs of this area. I am confident that this attempt by the Governor to dilute the voting rights of my constituents is in clear violation of the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution,” Lawson said.

The threat of legal challenges looms large over Florida’s redistricting process, which in 2012 became mired in a four-year legal fight after left-leaning voter groups filed a lawsuit under Florida’s Fair District amendments, which are anti-gerrymandering provisions in the state Constitution. As a result, current court-approved state Senate and congressional maps were largely drawn by the groups that challenged the original maps.

The GOP-controlled Florida Senate, led by Senate President Wilton Simpson, has drawn up a congressional map that is attempting to sidestep legal challenge. The Senate’s congressional map was overwhelmingly approved last month with both Democrats and Republicans voting yes. Lawmakers have until early March to come to a final agreement on a new map.

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