TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Supreme Court told Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday it will not answer his question on whether a Black congressman's district is unconstitutional, saying it's too complicated to simply answer in an advisory opinion.
DeSantis has interjected himself into the once-a-decade process of drawing new congressional maps, something highly unusual for a governor to do. The House and Senate have considered maps that largely left Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson's district intact, but DeSantis is pushing a map that would make his district lean Republican.
After submitting his map, DeSantis asked the Supreme Court if Lawson's district is unconstitutional. The district runs from Jacksonville to Gadsden County west of Tallahassee, a distance of about 200 miles (about 321 kilometers). DeSantis questioned whether drawing it to contain Black communities so far apart met the state and federal constitutions.
“The scope of the Governor’s request is broad and contains multiple questions that implicate complex federal and state constitutional matters and precedents interpreting the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” it wrote.
The governor's office accepted the opinion gracefully.
“While we were hopeful the Supreme Court would provide clarity to legal questions surrounding the maps that are under consideration, we agree with the Court’s opinion that there are important issues that must be addressed quickly,” DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said in an email.
The map that DeSantis released on the day before the Martin Luther King holiday also would dilute the Black vote in a South Florida district held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick. The current district in Palm Beach and Broward counties is about 50% African American, but the DeSantis map extends it to Florida's southwest Gulf coast, which tends to vote Republican.
Lawson said in a telephone interview that the ruling gives the Legislature more confidence to draw the congressional maps as they see fit instead of bowing to pressure from the governor. He served in the state Legislature for 28 years before being elected to Congress and said he has never seen a governor submit a map to lawmakers rather than let them do their work.
“Ron DeSantis lost today, but more important, the constitution won,” Lawson said.
Lawson said DeSantis' decision to release his maps on the eve of the MLK holiday and to ask the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of his district on the first day of Black History Month was insensitive.
“He's overstepped his bounds,” Lawson said. “I hope that he regroups and realizes that he was wrong and for these last two-and-a-half weeks of Black History Month, that he lets African-Americans know how much he appreciates their contribution of what they've done in the state of Florida.”
Democratic state Rep. Kelly Skidmore, who is on the House congressional redistricting committee, said she was glad the court recognized the separation of powers in the government branches.
“It’s time to set aside this political distraction and get back to work. Floridians expect us to create fair maps that uphold the Florida and U.S. constitutions, and that’s exactly what we plan to do,” she said in an emailed statement.
The Senate has already approved a congressional map that keeps Lawson's district intact. The House postponed consideration if its proposed map until the Supreme Court ruling, but Speaker Chris Sprowls said it will go forward with the map that preserve's Lawsons district.
“We're unpaused,” Sprowls said. “I think that you can probably anticipate that that north Florida district that was in a previous House map will be the similar or the same.”
Differences between the House and Senate maps will have to be resolved, and DeSantis has the option of vetoing whatever is sent to him. Candidates for Congress need to qualify for the ballot between June 13-17. The legislative session is scheduled to end March 11.