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Judge blocks voting map favored by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orland in February. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
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A Florida trial court judge on Wednesday blocked a congressional map favored by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) that would wipe out a voting district in North Florida represented by a Black Democrat.

Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith said the map drawn by DeSantis’s staff is unconstitutional under Florida’s Fair District Amendment because it reduces the impact of 370,000 Black voters in eight mostly rural counties.

“It diminishes African Americans’ ability to elect the representative of their choice,” Smith said.

Smith, a DeSantis appointee, said he would issue his formal ruling this week, noting that timing is crucial: Candidates hoping to run in the state’s 28 congressional districts face a June 17 qualifying deadline.

A DeSantis spokeswoman said the governor would appeal Smith’s order.

The 5th District was drawn by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015 and left largely intact by state legislators in this year’s once-a-decade map revision. It follows the Florida-Georgia state line from Jacksonville west to the small town of Quincy, encompassing counties with some of the highest percentages of Black voters in the state. The district is represented by Al Lawson, a Democrat who in 2016 became the first Black person since Reconstruction to represent most of those counties.

This year, in the midst of a pressure campaign from Donald Trump’s former senior adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, DeSantis proposed his own map that eliminates the 5th District — a first for a Florida governor. He later vetoed the maps submitted by legislators and called them back for a special session to pass his map, which they did last month.

The DeSantis map also shrinks another district held by a Black Democrat in central Florida. In a good political year for Republicans, as this year is expected to be, Republicans could win 20 out of 28 seats in a state Trump won by just three percentage points.

This week’s decision only impacts the North Florida district.

DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske said that “these complex constitutional matters of law” were destined for appellate review.

“We will undoubtedly be appealing his ruling and are confident the constitutional map enacted by the Florida legislature and signed into law passes legal muster,” Fenske wrote in a statement. “We look forward to defending it.”

Matthew Isbell, a Democratic redistricting expert in Florida, said he expects DeSantis and state officials will take their time in filing an appeal, hoping to “run out the clock” and get so close to elections that judges will be leery of changing the maps.

“This is all about Ron DeSantis trying to push this image of being a super conservative warrior,” Isbell said. “Conservatives were clamoring for a more Republican redistricting map, so one way to do that is to carve up District 5, make all of North Florida Republican and throw Black voters under the bus.”

Colby Itkowitz and Michael Scherer contributed to this report.