(Source: www.jaxtrib.org) – Civil rights groups and Jacksonville’s city attorneys will battle in federal court Friday in a hearing that could decide whether the city’s council districts are tossed or kept before the coming 2023 elections.
Ten voters and four civil-rights organizations filed suit against the city in May, arguing the Jacksonville City Council packed Black voters into four council districts and two School Board districts, which suppresses Black voting power in the city. While that lawsuit works its way to a trial late next year, plaintiffs also asked the court to intervene in the meantime to block the city from holding any elections under the maps, which they say violates the U.S. Constitution.
Lawyers will hold oral arguments Friday at 10 a.m. at the Bryan Simpson U.S. Courthouse before District Judge Marcia Morales Howard. The hearings will be open to the public.
Why does this matter?
Redistricting largely decides who holds political power in Jacksonville. Most major policy decisions at City Hall — from taxes, to infrastructure and what happens next with the city’s Confederate monuments — are decided by the 19 elected council members, 14 of whom are elected by districts.
Neighborhood activists have complained that their communities are overlooked because the map splits districts.
Black residents have said they have less political power because the majority of Black voters have been packed into just four of the 14 districts.
The voters suing the city are Marcella Washington, Ingrid Montgomery, Ayesha Franklin, Tiffanie Roberts, Rosemary McCoy, Sheila Singleton, Eunice Barnum, Janine Williams, Haraka Carswell and Dennis Barnum.
The civil rights organizations are the Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP, the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, the ACLU of Florida Northeast Chapter and Florida Rising Together.
The city is represented by its own attorneys at the Office of General Counsel.
What would be potentially illegal?
Courts have ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment bars governments from making race the predominant factor in redistricting. If race is a major factor, courts have said it needs to be for a narrowly tailored reason, like complying with the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits diluting minority voters.
Some redistricting lawsuits are brought because plaintiffs believe governments violated the Voting Rights Act by “diluting” minority voters who can’t elect their preferred candidates in a given district. Others are brought because plaintiffs believe governments violated the 14th Amendment by making race the driving factor without having a compelling reason to do so, which can lead to “packing.”
Jacksonville’s lawsuit is a packing case. That means the plaintiffs agree with the city that Jacksonville must comply with the Voting Rights Act by ensuring Black voters can elect candidates of their choice in four of the city’s 14 districts and two of the county’s School Board seats.
But the plaintiffs argue the City Council packed Black voters into those districts far beyond what was necessary, and they say that the Council prioritized packing in those Black voters above other criteria. If the city hadn’t done that, Black voters, the plaintiffs say, would have more influence in the other Northside and Westside districts and on the City Council as a whole.
What happens if the court agrees?
Judge Howard could rule Friday from the bench, either finding the districts are or aren’t likely unconstitutional, or she may wait until she can file a written order. In a prior order, she said she may request another hearing in two weeks so she can ask more questions.
If she does say the maps are unconstitutional, plaintiffs have asked her to give the city 21 days to draw new maps. After that, the plaintiffs could challenge the city’s new proposals and offer their own.
Likely, the plaintiffs would largely focus their changes on the districts they challenged on the Northside and Westside.
City attorneys say that if she finds the maps unconstitutional, Judge Howard should still allow the city to hold its elections in March and May of next year with the unconstitutional districts. In the meantime, the court should give the city five months to pass new constitutional maps.
Regardless of how Howard rules, the plaintiffs and the city are still scheduled to go to trial in late 2023 over the larger lawsuit.
In addition to the racial gerrymandering claims, the trial would also cover whether the City Council violated the Jacksonville charter. The charter requires districts drawn in a “logical and compact geographic pattern”.
Why does the city say it’s too late?
Initially, the city had said that the Duval Supervisor of Elections needed to know the new district lines by Dec. 16. But the city more recently argued that was too late in the process and that it likely wasn’t possible to conduct redistricting soon enough to go into effect for next year’s elections.
The city claimed in its filings that changing the lines in December would be unfair to candidates who must gather petitions from voters in their districts to qualify for the election. If the lines change, those petitions may become invalid, the city claimed, giving candidates no time to qualify.
But that claim is inconsistent with city lawyers’ own advice to Duval Elections Supervisor Mike Hogan.
State law says “in a year of apportionment” candidates can gather the petitions countywide. City lawyers advised Mike Hogan that this standard applies for 2023 candidates, a Tributary public records request revealed.
The city attorneys acknowledged that a Duval County circuit judge last decade had confirmed that standard.
Yet Hogan’s office has continued to tell 2023 candidates they must gather petitions from specific districts. Hogan and General Counsel Jason Teal have not responded to repeated requests for comment.
What do the plaintiffs and the city say happened during redistricting?
Plaintiffs say that the City Council prioritized race above other criteria in order to pack Black voters into just four of the city’s 14 council districts and two of the seven School Board seats.
The city has defended itself so far by arguing that council members were trying to pack Democrats, not Black voters, together, and that the council members were preserving historic districts and protecting incumbents.
It’s legal to pack Democrats, but packing Black voters would potentially violate the 14th Amendment.
While some City Council members discussed race repeatedly during redistricting, the city argued that what individual council members said is not relevant. What matters, the city’s attorneys said in a court filing, is the City Council’s intent as a “legislative body.”
The City Council largely didn’t handle redistricting at formal Redistricting Committee meetings. Instead, the council members largely deferred to each other, allowing council members to make the decisions about their own districts at separate meetings.
Plaintiffs say it was largely three Black Democrats on the City Council — Reggie Gaffney, Ju’Coby Pittman and Brenda Priestly Jackson — who were responsible for packing Black voters.
Gaffney and Pittman repeatedly brought up racial demographics, rejecting proposals to add white voters to their districts. Pittman said she wanted her district to remain 68 percent Black. At the time, Priestly Jackson said she felt Pittman’s district was “kind of packed, whether intentional or not.” Yet Pittman’s district ended up being 70% Black.
Plaintiffs also point to times that Priestly Jackson told her fellow council members to use specific language. Council members, she said, “can’t use the ethno-racial identifier” so they should instead “talk about some of the party stuff.” “Communities of interest,” Priestly Jackson said, was a legal term to refer to “minority access districts”.
The plaintiffs say this is proof that some of the discussions of “communities of interest” or “Democrats” in those four districts was coded language for talking about Black voters, but the city says that’s not true.
The city filed statements from all 18 council members who voted for the redistricting plan, all of whom said that race didn’t drive their decision-making. (Councilman Rory Diamond voted against the plan.)
As proof that council members were trying to pack Democrats, the city pointed to a time that Republican Councilwoman Randy DeFoor offered to give white-majority Democratic precincts in her district to Democratic Councilman Reggie Gaffney. But the city didn’t mention that the council rejected that proposal. Instead, Gaffney added less Democratic areas that had a higher share of Black voters.
The city also said that “some Council members referenced racial percentages in an effort to ensure that any given district neither packed nor diluted minority voters,” but plaintiffs pointed out that Priestly Jackson conceded that “I don’t know what percentage is needed” for Black voters to elect their preferred candidates.
How did it get to this point?
Hundreds of residents spoke out against the maps in January and February before the council approved it, arguing the maps were racially gerrymandered and split dozens of neighborhoods.
But City Council members wouldn’t relent, even as they acknowledged the plan would invite lawsuits. At the time, a city attorney told the council that the city would “likely prevail” if the maps were challenged in court.
Council members have continued to express confidence that the lawsuit has no chance at success. Councilman Sam Newby said he is “100 percent confident” the court will uphold the districts, and Redistricting Chairman Aaron Bowman said he didn’t “see a scenario where it gets overridden.”
During redistricting, Priestly Jackson had said she would explore potential reforms to the process, but she has not proposed any since the city passed its plan.
Some of the plaintiffs have said they want to see an independent redistricting process, instead of allowing the Jacksonville City Council to draw its own districts.