TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ bid to remake the state’s congressional map was dealt a major setback on Wednesday after a state judge said he would block the plan because of the way it scattered Black voters among several north Florida districts.
DeSantis personally pushed the GOP-led Legislature to approve the map, which boosts the number of Republican-held seats in the nation’s third-largest state. The map also dismantles the north Florida held by Rep. Al Lawson (D-Fla.), a Black Democrat.
The map is facing a legal challenge by a coalition of voting rights and civil rights groups that argues it violates the state’s Fair Districts standards — voter-approved anti-gerrymandering amendments in the Florida Constitution.
Circuit Judge J. Layne Smith, who DeSantis appointed to the circuit court two years ago, said during a three-hour hearing Wednesday that arguments the map violated the state Constitution were “persuasive” because it “diminishes the ability of African Americans to elect candidates of their choice.” He said he intended to put in place a map that would keep Lawson’s district intact.
Smith’s announcement, however, doesn’t settle the issue and is likely the start of a drawn-out legal fight that could eventually wind up before the state Supreme Court, which DeSantis has reshaped with a conservative majority.
Taryn Fenske, a spokesperson for DeSantis, said the state would appeal the ruling once it is formally entered. Smith said he planned to issue a written order as early as Thursday in order to allow the state to move quickly.
“As Judge Smith implied, these complex constitutional matters of law were always going to be decided at the appellate level,” Fenske said in an email. “We will undoubtedly be appealing his ruling and are confident the constitutional map enacted by the Florida Legislature and signed into law passes legal muster. We look forward to defending it.”
Lawson hailed Smith’s decision, saying he’s optimistic “future courts” will do the right thing. The three-term incumbent had been considering challenging Rep. Neal Dunn (R-Fla.) because the new map placed Lawson’s Tallahassee home in Dunn’s district.
“DeSantis is wrong for enacting this Republican-leaning map that is in clear violation of the U.S. and state constitutions,” Lawson said in a statement. “It is critical to maintain congressional district five so minority voters have a voice at the ballot box in November.”
Florida gained one congressional seat in 2022 due to population growth, for a total of 28. Republicans currently hold a 16-11 edge, and the map that was initially approved by the Legislature last month would have increased the GOP advantage by two seats.
Initially, state legislators intended to preserve Lawson’s seat — which stretches roughly 200 miles from northeast Florida to just west of Tallahassee — but amid opposition from DeSantis, they reshaped it in a way that preserved a likely Black congressional seat in the Jacksonville area. The governor vetoed the map anyway, contending this altered version of Florida’s 5th congressional district ran against recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings and amounted to illegal “racial gerrymandering.”
While Republicans at first called DeSantis’s assessment a “novel legal theory,” they pivoted and during an April special session passed a map proposed by his office that would likely give Republicans a 20-8 edge.
Voting rights and civil rights groups that sued contended that the DeSantis map violated the state’s Fair Districts standards, including a provision that says minority districts cannot be diminished. The groups were aided by a Democratic-aligned national redistricting group led by former Attorney General Eric Holder.
In arguments before Smith, John Devaney, an Orlando attorney representing the groups, said that the new map shifted roughly 370,000 Black voters from one district to four districts.
Devaney also said the court needed to step forward and block the map through an injunction now instead of waiting for a full trial. Florida’s primary is Aug. 23 and qualifying starts on June 13.
“Once an election is done, there’s no do-over,” Devaney told Smith. “The harm is done. The only way to protect against that harm is to assure that a constitutional voting map is put in place before the election actually occurs.”
Mohammad Jazil, an attorney representing Secretary of State Laurel Lee, countered that Lawson’s current district ran afoul of federal law and that Smith was bound to follow it instead of Fair Districts. He argued that Lawson’s seat cannot be shielded from change because while Black voters hold a substantial plurality they do not make up a majority.
Jazil added there was no compelling “interest” for the state to draw a district based on race.
But Smith countered that he was bound to follow previous rulings, including those from the state Supreme Court, that had upheld the configuration of Florida’s 5th congressional district. Smith also noted Florida’s history of slavery, which was concentrated in the same North Florida counties that were now part of Lawson’s district.