A federal judge on Thursday ruled that parts of Florida's new voting restrictions unconstitutionally disenfranchised Black voters and banned the state from making certain voting changes without approval from the court for the next decade.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled that portions of the law restricting the use of ballot drop-boxes, assistance for voters, and third-party voter registration drives violated the Voting Rights Act and constitutional protections because they were passed "with the intent to discriminate against Black voters."
Walker also ruled that the state must get court approval for the next 10 years before it enacts any other changes related to these rules. The ruling effectively put Florida back under pre-clearance requirements that were imposed on states with a history of discrimination under the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down the preclearance rules in its Shelby County v. Holder decision.
Walker in a 288-page ruling wrote that the requirement was necessary because Florida has "repeatedly, recently, and persistently acted to deny Black Floridians access to the franchise."
Florida was one of the numerous Republican-led states that passed new voting restrictions amid former President Donald Trump's campaign to stoke lies about the election, which were often aimed at areas of states he lost that had large Black populations. Walker in his ruling wrote that racism was a "motivating factor" behind Florida's new voting law, SB 90.
"At some point, when the Florida Legislature passes law after law disproportionately burdening Black voters, this court can no longer accept that the effect is incidental," Walker wrote. "Based on the indisputable pattern set out above, this court finds that, in the past 20 years, Florida has repeatedly sought to make voting tougher for Black voters because of their propensity to favor Democratic candidates. In summation, Florida has a horrendous history of racial discrimination in voting."
The preclearance requirement is one of the most aggressive measures federal courts have taken in response to voting restrictions. The "bail-in" provision in Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act allows judges to impose federal oversight of states or localities that have a history of racial discrimination, Travis Crum, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told The New York Times. Prior to Thursday's ruling, federal courts had only imposed such requirements against New Mexico and Arkansas in cases that were decided decades earlier. Five Florida counties were also placed under preclearance in 1975, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Democrats had pressed federal courts to use the provision over voter ID laws and gerrymanders in North Carolina and Texas but were denied by judges.
Walker's ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters of Florida and the NAACP.
The plaintiffs "allege that SB 90 runs roughshod over the right to vote, unnecessarily making voting harder for all eligible Floridians, unduly burdening disabled voters, and intentionally targeting minority voters—all to improve the electoral prospects of the party in power," Walker wrote. After poring over thousands of pages of evidence and hearing testimony from dozens of witnesses, he wrote, "this Court finds that, for the most part, Plaintiffs are right."
"All things being equal, that if the Florida law is intentional discrimination, the Georgia law should be intentional discrimination," Jonathan Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the Times. "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."
There is also no guarantee that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which leaned liberal before Trump packed the bench with conservative judges, will uphold the decision, much less the Trump-packed Supreme Court.
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Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed the bill into law, expressed confidence that the ruling would be struck down on appeal and accused Walker of "performative partisanship."
"There's an old saying in law," DeSantis told the Times. "If you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have the law on your side, argue the law. If you have neither, you pound the table. Well, this is the judicial equivalent of pounding the table."
Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson called the ruling "highly unprofessional, inaccurate and unbecoming of an officer of the court."
Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, said the ruling was a "huge deal" and the preclearance requirement a "very strong remedy." But he agreed that the ruling may be short-lived.
"The district court's analysis is probably right, but there is good reason to believe that this case could be reversed on appeal by the much more conservative 11th Circuit or the Supreme Court," he wrote in a blog post.
Other legal experts warned that the judge's ruling could backfire given the Supreme Court's willingness to gut voting protections. Nicholas Stephanopoulos, an election law expert at Harvard Law School, warned that the Supreme Court could use the case to further weaken the Voting Rights Act.
"From a realistic perspective, it's unlikely that the 11th Circuit or the Supreme Court would agree with the district court that there was racially discriminatory intent in Florida," he told the Times. "There's a lurking fear that the same court that decided Shelby County might decide that bail-in is unconstitutional."
Walker, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2012, in his ruling cited recent Supreme Court decisions to highlight that "the right to vote, and the VRA particularly, are under siege."
"Federal courts must not lose sight of the spirit that spurred the VRA's passage," Walker wrote, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., as saying that "to deny a person the right to exercise his political freedom at the polls is no less a dastardly act as to deny a Christian the right to petition God in prayer."
"Federal courts would not countenance a law denying Christians their sacred right to prayer," Walker wrote, "and they should not countenance a law denying Floridians their sacred right to vote."