Legal rumble over redistricting

By RYAN DAILEY News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE – The trial over a redistricting plan pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that led to an overhaul of a North Florida congressional district kicked off this week, with voting-rights groups arguing that the district’s redrawing was based on racial discrimination.
Attorneys for plaintiffs including the groups Common Cause and the NAACP in opening arguments Tuesday also tried to convince a panel of three federal judges that the redistricting plan violated the U.S. Constitution.
The case focuses on Congressional District 5, which in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson but was dramatically changed last year and was won by a white Republican in November’s elections. The district prior to being redrawn stretched from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee, but was split up last year and absorbed into four districts.
“As a result, the Black voters in North Florida have lost the ability to elect a candidate of their choice,” Greg Baker, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said.
The plaintiffs contend that the overhaul of District 5 violated the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment. The 14th Amendment ensures equal protection, while the 15th Amendment prohibits denying or abridging the right to vote based on race.
But an attorney for the state contended that the plan was aimed at making districts more compact, and that when the Legislature passed the DeSantis-backed map lawmakers were following geographic and political boundaries.
“We don’t presume (legally) that our decision makers are acting inappropriately,” said Mohammed Jazil, an attorney representing the state.
Baker in his opening arguments focused in part on the governor’s relatively unusual role in pushing through the redistricting plan.
“His (DeSantis’) real concern was having any Black district in North Florida, compact or not,” Baker argued, pointing to an earlier plan passed by the Legislature that was vetoed by DeSantis.
Jazil disputed that DeSantis’ role was related to racial discrimination.
“It doesn’t make it unprecedented in an unconstitutional manner,” Jazil said. “They do not show discriminatory intent.”
Lawmakers passed the plan being challenged during a special session after DeSantis vetoed a proposal that could have led to electing a Black candidate in District 5, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs. The vetoed proposal included creating a district in Duval County that would have included a relatively large Black population.
Prior to the redrawing, District 5 incorporated areas with sizable Black populations.
The federal-court trial is expected to last at least through part of next week. It kicked off roughly three weeks after a Leon County circuit judge ruled in a separate case that the District 5 overhaul violated part of the Florida Constitution — a ruling that the state has appealed.


As Florida Atlantic University waits for its stalled presidential search to resume amid a state investigation into “anomalies” in the process, support is growing for Interim President Stacy Volnick to be offered the job on a permanent basis.
The FAU Faculty Senate this month decided to ask the school’s Board of Trustees to consider exploring the idea of installing Volnick, who was named interim president in September 2022, in the permanent job. Kim Dunn, an FAU professor and member of the trustees who also is chairwoman of the Faculty Senate, delivered the proposal to trustees Tuesday.
“The sentiment is that the uncertainty and negative press associated with the prolonged search is detrimental to our university. It is hurting our image and our ability to advance our core mission. One area of particular concern is our inability to fill the many interim vice president and other leadership positions without a named president,” Dunn said.
Dunn asked the board to “explore with the (state university system’s) Board of Governors” whether “an adjustment could be made” to the presidential-selection process to allow the trustees to consider offering a multi-year contract to Volnick to lead the school. She said members of the Faculty Senate from “a wide range of colleges” were supportive of Volnick “and the job she is doing in leading and stabilizing the university.”
Trustees Chairman Brad Levine said the request was “reasonable” but did not indicate whether the trustees would pursue it.
“I hear what you’re asking, and I think exploring is a reasonable thing,” Levine said.
The search was halted in July at the direction of state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, who alleged that members of the FAU Presidential Search Committee improperly participated in what Rodrigues called a “straw poll” to rank preferred candidates. Rodrigues also alleged that at least one candidate for the job had been asked questions about their sexual orientation and gender.
An investigation led by the Board of Governors’ inspector general is ongoing.


Nearly eight years after the last state-sanctioned bear hunt, Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith said Florida needs to find solutions as encounters between the animals and humans are increasing.
“We need to look at some different ways of doing things,” Smith told The News Service of Florida this week.
Calls for a hunt came after multiple reported bear encounters in recent weeks. In one instance, a woman in the rural Gulf Coast had to lock herself inside a bedroom as a bear broke into her home. In a separate incident, a woman was trapped in a car by a large black bear.
Smith last week wrote to the governor’s office seeking a meeting with wildlife officials about expanding the state’s approach to bear management, including the potential of a bear hunt.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe, on Wednesday said he supported a hunt. Shoaf said during a Franklin County legislative delegation meeting in Apalachicola that “this bear problem is out of control.”
“We really need a bear hunt,” Shoaf said. “It’s what we need here in North Florida. We’re inundated. We’ve got way too many. Until we do that, we’re going to continue to have these problems.”
Shoaf, who has introduced legislation the past two years about killing bears, filed a similar bill this week for the 2024 legislative session that starts in January.
The state last held a hunt in 2015, which was expected to result in 320 bears being killed over a one-week period. After two days, 304 were dead.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Attorneys for voting-rights groups Tuesday began trying to convince a panel of federal judges that an overhaul of a North Florida congressional district in 2022 was motivated at least in part by racial discrimination and violated the U.S. Constitution.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The old way is to keep your garbage picked up, which I agree with. We’ve got to do the best we can with our garbage. But ‘get a whistle,’ ‘we’ll send you a pamphlet,’ I mean that kind of stuff is not going to do anything because we have a much larger bear population because we’ve been protecting bears for so long.” — Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith