Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., left, and former Rep. Al Lawson, D-Fla., center, are seen exiting the Capitol in Washington on June 15, 2018. After redistricting changed Florida’s congressional districts, Dunn defeated Lawson in the 2022 election.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Black voters in Florida could regain a congressional district where they make up a sizable share of the population, if voting rights groups prevail in an ongoing legal battle.

The court action was a response to a district map, signed into law by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, that carved up the congressional territory that had last been represented by a Black Democrat.

Plaintiffs hope to have the district back ahead of next year’s elections.

“We’re trying not to take two and three years in the litigation process,” said Cecile Scoon, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, one of the plaintiffs suing over the state’s U.S. House map. “As time passes with what we believe to be an illegal map, more harm is occurring to the citizens and to their ability to have their voices heard.”

Several voting rights groups and voters are suing in state court to have a reliably African American-performing district reinstated in North Florida, arguing that the current map violates the state constitution, which protects minority-access districts in the state.

“All of us, regardless of our race, our party, our status, our title, must follow the law given to us,” said Scoon, who’s also a civil rights attorney. “If you don’t like it, go to the legislature and get it changed, or take it to court.”

Leon County Circuit Court Judge J. Lee Marsh will issue a ruling in the case sometime after hearing oral arguments on Thursday. Both sides recently agreed to skip a trial and expedite the case to the Florida Supreme Court if the circuit court’s order is appealed.

“This is a pathway to get a seat back,” Scoon said. “It’s an opportunity for African Americans in North Florida to choose their representative of choice.”

The state’s highest court would have until the end of the year to issue a decision, under the recent agreement reached in the case.

The outcome could play a role in which major party takes the U.S. House after the 2024 elections. Battles over redistricting maps are ongoing in states including Georgia and Alabama.

How Al Lawson’s district was carved up

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis used his veto power to pressure Republicans in the legislature to pass a “race-neutral” map drafted by his office.

Chris O’Meara/AP

Chris O’Meara/AP

DeSantis took the unprecedented step of inserting himself into the map-drawing process last year when he used his veto power to pressure Republicans in the legislature to pass a “race-neutral” map drafted by his office.

“The legislators initially rebuffed the governor’s arguments,” Scoon said. “To have them capitulate after the veto, very disappointing.”

DeSantis’ map carved up the former North Florida district — the 5th District — of Democratic Congressman Al Lawson into four Republican-leaning districts, contributing to Lawson’s election loss in last year’s midterms.

“People who had the opportunity to vote for a person of their choice do not have that anymore,” Lawson said.

The former 5th District stretched from Gadsden County — the state’s only county with a majority Black population — to eastern Duval County, picking up African American voters in Tallahassee and Jacksonville.

Lawson says he’s not sure he’d run again if the district is reinstated. “This is bigger than me,” he said.

What the state of Florida has argued

In 2010, about 63% of Florida voters approved the Fair Districts Amendments, which put in place rules to ensure voting maps aren’t intentionally drawn to favor a particular political party or diminish minority voting power in the state.

In a trial brief filed last week, attorneys for the state argued that lawmakers weren’t bound by this requirement because the standard itself violates the U.S. Constitution.

“If prioritizing race is unconstitutional, then the non-diminishment standard is ‘without effect’ for purposes of drawing a district, and the Florida Legislature need not comply with it when enacting a map, and the Secretary of State need not comply with it when implementing a map,” the attorneys wrote in the brief.

Attorneys for the state argue that preserving a Black voting district in North Florida would’ve violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because there was no compelling state interest to prioritize race over other redistricting factors, such as compactness.

“You’re going to have to sacrifice some compactness for racial representation, which as a state that has had a long history of racist sentiment and suppression of votes, is pretty important, especially in North Florida, where there’s ample history of racial segregation,” said Matthew Isbell, a Florida redistricting data analyst who’s worked with Democratic campaigns.

A new court composition could factor in

In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court enforced the state’s Fair Districts Amendments when striking down the legislature’s map and ordering lawmakers to adopt the former 5th Congressional District, preserving African American voting power in the region.

Today, the court is made up of mostly DeSantis appointees, with only one of the previous judges who affirmed Fair Districts eight years ago remaining on the bench.

“The current court is much more conservative,” Isbell said. “If it was the older court, I would be much more confident about how this would all play out.”

Isbell says a win for plaintiffs in circuit court could increase the chances that they’ll prevail if the case is appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. He added: “If the trial court here sides with the state, I think then it becomes trickier.”

Regardless of how the state court rules, plaintiffs in an ongoing federal lawsuit plan to proceed with their case, explained Kathay Feng, an attorney and vice president of programs for Common Cause Florida, one of the groups challenging the map.

“If they come to a final remedy that is very narrowly focused, there is still an opportunity for the federal case to examine the entire state map as a whole,” Feng said.

Although plaintiffs suing in state court have agreed to skip a trial, that’s not expected to happen in the federal case, Feng said: “We are fully prepared to go to trial in September.”