Judge rules parts of Florida election law unconstitutional

A federal judge in Florida ruled on Thursday that sections of the state’s year-old election law were unconstitutional and racially motivated, and barred the state from making similar changes to its laws in the next decade without federal approval.

The 288-page order with specific terms, issued by Judge Mark E. Walker of the Tallahassee Federal District Court, was the first time a federal court has struck down major elements of the wave of election laws enacted by Republicans since the 2020 election. Finding a pattern of racial bias, Walker, in his ruling, relied on a little-used statutory provision to impose unusual federal restrictions on how a state legislates.

“For the past 20 years, the majority of the Florida Legislature has attacked the voting rights of its black voters,” Walker wrote in the decision, which frequently quoted the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Walker argued. that the attacks were “part of a cynical effort to suppress participation among supporters of their opponents. That the law does not permit.”

Judge Walker’s decision will certainly be appealed and likely overturned by either the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which tends to be conservative, or the Supreme Court, which has sharply limited the power of the federal government to intervene in the state. electoral law.

Florida Republicans immediately denounced the decision. During an appearance in West Palm Beach, Gov. Ron DeSantis called the decision “performative partisanship” and predicted a reversal on appeal.

“There’s an old saying in law,” said DeSantis, who has a law degree. “If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have the law on your side, defend the law. If you don’t have either, you beat the table. Well, it’s the legal equivalent of banging the table.

The decision targets parts of the law that limited the use of drop boxes, imposed strict rules on voter registration organizations and prohibited certain forms of assistance to Floridians waiting in line to vote. Judge Walker’s order prevents Florida from doing changes to these three functions for 10 years without federal government approval.

Though short-lived, Judge Walker’s ruling represents one of the most aggressive legal attacks on Republicans in the heated voting rights battles that followed President Donald J. Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election. The decision also comes as Democrats and their allies pursue a bottom-up legal strategy, relying on federal voting protections diminished by the Supreme Court.

In his ruling, Justice Walker blasted previous Supreme Court rulings on voting issues and essentially challenged the justices to overturn his decision.

“Without explaining, the court allowed its entirely jurisprudential prudential rule to override some of our most prized constitutional rights,” the judge wrote.

Judge Walker, who was appointed in 2012 by President Barack Obama, spared a few rhetorical flourishes by saying Republicans were seeking to limit black Floridians’ access to the vote. He described Republican lawmakers as offering “contradictory or absurd justifications” for the law and argued that they were fundamentally driven by a partisan desire to win the election.

“Florida has repeatedly sought to make it harder for black voters to vote because of their propensity to favor Democratic candidates,” he wrote.

Judge Walker’s ruling highlighted comments made by state lawmakers during the floor debate that described voters as “lazy” for not turning out to vote.

Republican lawmakers “have unleashed one of the oldest racial tropes known to man in response to concerns about minority disenfranchisement,” Justice Walker wrote.

Wilton Simpson, the Republican president of the Florida Senate, said in a statement that the ruling was “highly unprofessional, inaccurate and unbecoming of an officer of the law.”

Democrats in the state, excluded from power, celebrated the decision but feared it would resist appeals.

“It’s been a tough few years for those of us who think politicians shouldn’t make it harder for people they don’t like to vote, so today it’s a big deal. “said Raymond Paultre, executive director of the Florida Alliance, a national network of progressive donors. “The fear is that it will go to the 11th Circuit and they will be what the Republicans want.”

With his decision, Judge Walker placed a relatively obscure element of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 at the center of the legal debate over federal protection of voting rights.

For decades, the law required dozens of jurisdictions across the country, and particularly in the South, to approve voting law changes with the Justice Department. But in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the preclearance rules in a case known as Shelby County v. Holder.

Judge Walker’s decision places Florida under federal restrictions, using section 3 of the act. The provision, known as a “bail-in,” allows judges to impose additional federal oversight of election law, if states or local governments are found to be repeat offenders in discrimination cases. race, said Travis Crum, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Courts have used the “bail-in” clause sparingly. Prior to the Florida ruling, New Mexico and Arkansas were the only states judges had ordered to meet preclearance requirements decades ago. A few counties and cities have also done so, Prof Crum said.

Some Democrats have tried to persuade courts to use bailout requirements on voter ID laws and redistricting cards in North Carolina and Texas, but federal judges have refused to do so in major cases.

The strategy risks taking suffrage cases to the Supreme Court, where the conservative majority could further weaken the suffrage law.

“Realistically, the 11th Circuit or the Supreme Court is unlikely to agree with the district court that there was racially discriminatory intent in Florida,” Nicholas Stephanopoulos said. , professor at Harvard Law School and expert in electoral law. “There is a hidden fear that the same court that decided Shelby County could rule that the bail-in is unconstitutional.”

Thursday’s ruling upheld one of many legal challenges to voting laws passed by Republican-led legislatures last year. Voting rights groups and Democrats have accused Republicans of using laws that disproportionately target black voters and other communities of color to gain partisan advantage.

Similar arguments have been made in Georgia. There, voting rights groups argued that new mail-in voting restrictions would give Republicans an advantage by targeting black voters, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic. But experts note that the legal theory used by Judge Walker may not be shared by other judges.

“All things being equal, if Florida law is intentional discrimination, Georgia law should be intentional discrimination,” said Jonathan Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “But there’s no guarantee that our judge in Georgia or the judges in the Texas cases are going to look at it the same way.”

Judge Walker has previously chastised Florida election laws, often with scathing language against Republican leaders in the state. In 2018, he ruled that officials in 32 counties with Puerto Rican populations must provide voting materials in Spanish — and referenced how the voting rights cases before him had started to look like the movie “Groundhog Day “.

Mr. DeSantis has repeatedly dismissed some trial courts as politically biased and insisted that his administration’s policies and laws of the Legislative Assembly would be upheld by more conservative appellate courts.

“In the Tallahassee trial, state and federal courts, we usually lose if there’s a political component, but then in the appellate court, we almost always win,” DeSantis said last fall. after a state appeals court cleared a ban. on school mask mandates to stay in place, reversing a lower court’s decision.

Edward K. Thompson