Judge accepts Jacksonville’s redistricting settlement

Published on May 30, 2023 at 5:08 pm

The racial gerrymandering case that upended the Jacksonville City Council’s district map, proving the city had segregated voters on the basis of race for decades, has finally ended.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard accepted a settlement between the city and the plaintiffs, calling it “fair, reasonable, and lawful.” The city will continue using a map drawn by the plaintiffs as ordered by Howard.

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The city will also pay $100,000 to cover part of the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees, in addition to the more than $200,000 the city spent on its own outside attorneys and experts in its failed attempt to block the lawsuit.

“This judgment is a vindication of all the hard work of community members and activists who stood up to fight for what’s right,” said Nicholas Warren, an ACLU of Florida staff attorney representing plaintiffs. “It’s a new day, and it’s time to turn the page on a brighter and more equitable future in the city. There is much more work to be done. The struggle for justice continues.”

The Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP, the Northside Coalition, the ACLU of Florida Northeast Chapter and Florida Rising, along with 10 Jacksonville voters, first filed suit a year ago, asking the court to strike down seven of the city’s 14 council districts and three of Duval County’s seven School Board seats.

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They argued City Council members obsessed over racial statistics, allowing a desire to pack Black voters into four of the 14 districts to dominate discussions more than other factors.

Eunice Barnum, president of the Sherwood Forest/Paradise Park Community Association, was one of the plaintiffs. She is a longtime community organizer who has focused on government accountability for decades.

In a conversation with Jacksonville Today earlier this month, Barnum noted that the public employs local elected officials. She cited text in the Florida Constitution and the Jacksonville City Charter regarding the equal stake residents have in selecting their representatives to illustrate why she joined the suit.

“When you start talking about districts, we pay all of them, don’t we?” she said. “I pay 19 people a salary. Why would I, then, not want to hold 19 employees accountable for the duties of the job they begged for? They used the districts to do whatever. But, we’re supposed to be equal.”

She said she was less focused on district lines, but on doing what she could to ensure there was a consequence for violating laws on redistricting.

“It isn’t about districts,” Barnum said. “It’s about we pay 19 people a salary to represent the needs of our community. And you hold all 19 of them accountable equally.”

The Tributary reported that the city’s maps risked violating the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, but council members remained defiant that their plans were constitutional.

Under the city’s original map, four districts held 54.5% of the county’s Black residents, with the Black populations in those districts ranging from 61% to 70% Black. Under the new court-ordered map, those districts hold 50.6% of the county’s Black residents, and the populations range from 41% to 85% Black.

By packing so many of the county’s Black residents into just four of the districts, it reduced Black voting power in the three other districts north and west of the St. Johns River.

Because each of the Duval County School Board districts is made up of two City Council districts merged together, the new map also affects future School Board elections. Because the court found those districts unconstitutional, the plaintiffs have suggested they may ask the court to order special elections for two of the School Board seats — those currently held by Darryl Willie and Charlotte Joyce — in 2024 for shortened two-year terms.

Hundreds of residents attended Jacksonville City Council meetings, using every minute of available time to speak out against the maps until the council leadership cut them off.

The plaintiffs even sent a letter that warned the council of “legal action” if council members didn’t fix the map’s racial gerrymandering.

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.”

Council members said they were merely maintaining council districts that had been in place for decades, making as few changes as possible. But The Tributary reported that the council first drew those districts decades ago based on misinformation about what federal law required.

That reporting, which included a year’s worth of archival research and interviews with past elected officials, formed the basis for much of Howard’s eventual ruling.

Howard found that the City Council had chosen to maintain the same districts from 2011 “not despite their racial components but specifically to maintain them.”

Howard also said anyone who knows Jacksonville could see the districts were “odd and illogical.”

The city charter and ordinance code required “logical and compact” districts, but Howard wrote, “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.’”

The city appealed Howard’s ruling that struck down their initial map, but the city lost that appeal, and then it lost another appeal. Then Howard gave the city a second chance at drawing the district maps, but she found that “the city’s effort to do so was hamstrung by its failure to address Jacksonville’s 30-year history of racial gerrymandering.”

Instead, she ordered the city to use a map submitted by the plaintiffs. The city again appealed that decision, and again the city lost.

Although the City Council agreed to settle the case, several council members made clear they were doing so begrudgingly, still holding to the belief Howard wrongly decided the case.

But Councilman Michael Boylan asked Jacksonville General Counsel Jason Teal to draft a memo about lessons learned from the redistricting debacle to better inform future council members.

This story is published through a partnership between WJCT News and The Tributary.  Jacksonville Today reporter Will Brown contributed to the report.

author image Andrew Pantazi edits and reports for The Tributary. He previously worked as a reporter at The Florida Times-Union, where he helped organize the newsroom's union with the NewsGuild-CWA. He is a Jacksonville native and raising his two sons in the city.
author image Andrew Pantazi edits and reports for The Tributary. He previously worked as a reporter at The Florida Times-Union, where he helped organize the newsroom's union with the NewsGuild-CWA. He is a Jacksonville native and raising his two sons in the city.

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