The Florida Legislature. [Andrew Pantazi/The Tributary]

TALLAHASSEE | The state of Florida will square off with voting-rights plaintiffs in Tallahassee this week in a high-stakes redistricting battle that could have national implications as both sides argue over the constitutionality of protections for Black voters.

The one-day hearing on Thursday follows the state’s stark admission: Gov. Ron DeSantis’ congressional map violated the state’s safeguards against diminishing the electoral influence of racial minorities. DeSantis’ lawyers will argue those protections infringe upon the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and should be thrown out.

The two sides will present their arguments in Tallahassee before Second Judicial Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh, a Rick Scott appointee, who could approve a new map in time for the 2024 elections. The judge’s ruling will likely be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, where DeSantis has appointed the majority of justices.

If DeSantis gets his way, Florida courts would go further than the U.S. Supreme Court has and would advance the legal argument, pushed by many conservatives, that it’s inherently wrong to preserve the political voice of Black voters. That could set Florida’s anti-gerrymandering Fair District standards and the federal Voting Rights Act in conflict with the U.S. Constitution, and open the door to Florida’s case being used to dismantle voting protections nationwide.

It’s a gambit for the governor and presidential candidate whose education and corporate governance mandates have demonstrated his opposition to policies that aim to advance racial equity. But it also gives DeSantis the opportunity to become a hero in right-wing circles.

“It’s a very aggressive play on the part of Gov. DeSantis and Republicans, really pushing toward a vision of a race-blind Constitution,” said Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

The argument, he said, seems focused on building DeSantis’ political brand. “It’s not a legal strategy. It’s a political strategy. Win or lose, you get some political benefit out of having this fight.”

The lawsuit’s claim

Last year, civil-rights groups sued the state over its congressional map, alleging it violated the Florida Constitution by diminishing Black voting power, discriminating against Black voters and intentionally drawing districts to benefit Republicans.

The governor initially defended the map, but, in the surprise joint filing this month, the state’s lawyers admitted the new map diminishes Black voters’ ability to elect candidates of their choice.