A courtroom sketch of U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard in the Jacksonville City Council redistricting case. [Steve Bridges]

A federal judge has barred Jacksonville from using its City Council and Duval School Board district maps, finding that seven City Council and three School Board districts were likely racially gerrymandered.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard found the City Council likely had used race as a predominant factor in drawing the maps in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Black voters, she ruled, have been segregated based on race, which has ensured they won’t have a “meaningful impact on any election or a meaningful voice on any issue of concern.”

This means the city will get a second chance at redrawing the maps, and then the plaintiffs could challenge that new map and propose their own. The city must enact its new map by Nov. 8. Plaintiffs may submit alternative proposals if they object by Nov. 18.

The city’s lawyers will now meet with City Council in a non-public meeting to discuss whether to accept the ruling or appeal it to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The evidence that the Challenged Districts are the product of intentional race-based decision-making is largely unrebutted and compelling,” Judge Howard wrote. “And absent an injunction, the irreparable Constitutional harm caused by the unnecessary racial segregation of voters in the Challenged Districts will be complete and perpetuate for years into the future. For this reason, new maps must be drawn in advance of the next election.”

Ten voters and four civil-rights organizations filed the lawsuit, saying the city had packed Black voters into four out of 14 districts far beyond what would’ve been necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act. 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.

Packing Black voters had the effect of reducing Black voting power in Jacksonville, they said, and the judge agreed. Howard, who was appointed to the bench by former President George W. Bush in 2007, granted a preliminary injunction that bars the city from holding elections using the gerrymandered districts.

In four of the challenged districts, Black residents made up between 61% and 70% of the population.

The Tributary’s reporting showed that in past redistricting cycles, including in 2011, council members believed they needed to draw certain districts to be at least 60% Black. This time around, the City Council said it prioritized making as few changes as possible from the 2011 maps. 

Jacksonville’s charter requires the City Council to draw districts that are “logical and compact”. A trial scheduled for next year would also bring a claim that the districts violated that provision. Howard repeatedly said it was obvious the districts are not compact. That trial could invalidate more of the city’s 14 council districts.

In a statement, ACLU of Florida Northeast board member BeJae Shelton said, “We are proud of our friends and neighbors who stood up to advocate for their voting rights and achieved this win for fair representation in Jacksonville. They have made a positive difference for Jacksonville communities, who will now have an equal voice in their city government.”

Ben Frazier, another one of the plaintiffs and the president of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, tweeted, “The court’s decision to block maps that pack Black communities into too few districts represents positive change for Jacksonville. We now hope for maps that give us fair representation & an equal voice!”

City Council leadership expressed complete confidence the city would win.

Before the ruling, Sam Newby, the City Council president when the maps were approved, said he was “100% confident” the city would win. His successor, City Council President Terrance Freeman had said he had “the utmost confidence in the work my colleagues did during the redistricting process.” Redistricting Committee Chairman Aaron Bowman said he couldn’t “see a scenario where it gets overridden, so I’ll stay away from hypotheticals” about what to do if the court strikes down the map. 

At the time of the redistricting vote, a city attorney told the council “we feel strongly … if we’re sued, then we will defend it and likely prevail.”

The lawsuit named the city and Duval County Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan as defendants.

Hogan told The Tributary in an email, “Our office doesn’t draw the district lines the City Council does. It is our duty to accept the lines as drawn by the City Council. It is also our duty to abide by any Judges ruling.”

Freeman said Wednesday evening that the city’s lawyers were still reading the 139-page ruling, and “we will explore all our legal options and proceed accordingly.”

Newby said he thinks the city should “definitely appeal” and said that he disagrees with the ruling. “I’m surprised by the ruling,” he said. “I’m sure they [Office of General Counsel] are surprised like I’m surprised. They were pretty confident like I was we were going to win.”

Councilman Matt Carlucci said unlike Newby he was not surprised by the ruling.

Six of the districts from the approved Jacksonville City Council redistricting plans.
(Clockwise from top-left) Jacksonville City Council districts 10, 14, 9, 7, 2 and 8. [Jacksonville NAACP lawsuit]

Howard said anyone who knows Jacksonville could see the districts were “odd and illogical.” Even though the city charter and ordinance code require “logical and compact” districts, she said, “No matter how many ways one might try to describe the shape of Districts 7-10, and 14, the word compact would not apply, elongated, or sprawling, perhaps—but certainly not ‘compact.'”

She said the shapes prompted “obvious questions.” 

“Why does District 8, the bulk of which encompasses the rural northwest side of Jacksonville, forego compactness to incorporate an appendage reaching deep into downtown?” she wrote. “Why must District 7 jump the Trout River, in order to connect a slice of Jacksonville’s northside to the downtown? Why do Districts 9 and 10 use narrow land bridges, each only one voting precinct wide, to connect their disparate sections? And why must District 9 incorporate a bizarre claw that reaches into District 14 to divide neighborhoods in a manner that, intentionally or not, separates Black residents from their White neighbors?”

She also took the City Council to task for its failure to respond to hundreds of residents who attended public hearings. Dozens of people spoke out against the maps, saying the City Council was racially gerrymandering.

“If maintaining the high [Black] percentages in the minority access districts was not intentionally done, if it was not a significant factor to the City Council, then it is puzzling why the City Council would fail to respond to these public concerns at all,” she wrote.

City Council Rules Chair Brenda Priestly Jackson speaks at a redistricting hearing at Raines High School. [Amanda Rosenblatt / The Tributary]

She specifically noted City Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson as uniquely responsible for maintaining the racially gerrymandered maps in the face of “significant public criticism.”

“Her statements plainly reflect that for Priestly Jackson, maintaining high [Black] percentages in the minority access districts was the criterion that could not be compromised,” Howard wrote. Howard also pointed to tweets Priestly Jackson sent criticizing state Rep. Angie Nixon who had called on her to fix the racial gerrymandering.

The evidence about 2011’s redistricting, Howard said, “unabashedly points to racial gerrymandering.”

In fact, The Tributary’s past reporting, which the injunction motion cited, showed that ever since the 1981 redistricting cycle, Jacksonville has continued using a legal theory that the U.S. Department of Justice called “misinformation” to draw the Black-majority districts.

Rosemary McCoy, one of the plaintiffs, said redistricting affects Black residents’ ability to influence city policy. “Maps that give Black communities an equal voice will be vital for securing equal investment, equal funding and equal attention for our communities from our city government.”