By Olivia Klein
On Friday, September 16, Election Law Clinic clinical instructor Daniel Hessel led the plaintiff’s oral arguments during Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP v. City of Jacksonville’s preliminary injunction hearing, arguing against the use of racially biased redistricting maps in the 2023 and 2024 city council and school board elections.
The case was filed last spring, after the Jacksonville City Council passed into law a new map of districts that unconstitutionally sort voters by race. The City Council seeks to pack Black voters into four snaking districts, stripping them from surrounding white districts, in what plaintiffs and other community members argue is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
When she heard about the case through connections at the ACLU of Florida, clinic director Ruth Greenwood was eager to have the clinic be a part of it. Under her direction, the clinic aims to provide representation in cases that may otherwise go under-resourced or unrepresented. Particularly at the local level, applying the clinic’s legal resources to the power built by coalition groups on the ground can be a winning combination for bringing effective change to communities in need.
The case was filed on behalf of local organizations including the Jacksonville NAACP Branch, the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, the Northeast Chapter of the ACLU of Florida, Florida Rising and 10 individual residents. Plaintiffs are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (ACLU-FL) and the Harvard Election Law Clinic.
Last week’s hearing is one step towards a remedy for Jacksonville residents; if the preliminary injunction that the clinic argued for is granted, the City Council must pass an interim redistricting in time for their March 2023 election, curing the constitutional deficiencies of the current map.
The city has rested much of their defense on the Supreme Court’s Purcell principle, which states that courts should not change election rules during the period just prior to an election because doing so could confuse voters and create election administration problems. During the hearing, Hessel argued that the city is far beyond the limits of Purcell. “The city is asking the Court to grant the single earliest and most aggressive application of Purcell in its sixteen-year history,” says Nicholas Anway ‘23. “We are currently six months ahead of the next elections in Jacksonville. The city has plenty of time to change course and prevent the irreparable harm that Black voters face if they are denied equal representation and an equal voice in their government.”
Hessel, Greenwood, and Anway travelled to Jacksonville to meet with the plaintiffs, leaders of local Jacksonville civil rights organizations, and members of the community before and after the hearing.
“The clients are phenomenal, they do extraordinary work,” says Hessel. “Jacksonville does not have a lot of responsiveness to the communities who most need it. This is aggravated by the gerrymandered districts and politicians minimizing Black political influence. There’s a deep desire for change on a lot of issues and not a lot of responsiveness. The clients have been deeply involved in those fights.”
Anway, who has worked on the case as a clinical student since last spring, emphasizes the importance of grounding this case in the plaintiff experience. He tells the story of one of the Jacksonville clients, Ayesha Franklin:
“She lives in a district that she calls “the claw” because of its non-compact, claw-like shape, resembling a component of an arcade machine. Ms. Franklin explained that as she walks mere blocks from her house, she crosses the claw’s talons into two different districts. They’re all in the same neighborhood, but racial sorting prevents her from voting with her neighbors for the best interest of their community. The irregular district shapes ensnare Black voters, separating them from their white neighbors—in some areas, down to the precinct level. Ms. Franklin’s neighborhood needs basic services. They don’t have access to a grocery store and the streets are in disrepair. Unconstitutional racial gerrymandering allows city officials to ignore her community by packing districts.”
When racially gerrymandered maps are codified in law, the city’s minimization of Black political power continues until the next redistricting cycle, leaving residents unable to successfully advocate for their communities in the local political arena. As Moné Holder, senior director of advocacy and programs at Florida Rising, said: “these kinds of decisions don’t just occur in a vacuum.” Rather, they are part of a history of racial gerrymandering in Jacksonville, which the Jacksonville City Council chose to double down on in the voter sorting of the contested maps.
In a press conference after last week’s hearing, one of the plaintiffs, Rosemary McCoy, said that the maps are “modern day segregation, plain and simple.” McCoy continues, “the government is telling me that because of the color of my skin, I am not allowed to vote with my white neighbors for the issues and people who affect my neighborhood.”
As Anway says, “I think what the case really boils down to is the question of, when does the racial sorting and racial gerrymandering in Jacksonville end?”
During the three-hour oral arguments in a courtroom filled with supporters from the community, Hessel presented the argument that the maps are a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. He felt well-prepared after months of preparation in close collaboration with clinical students. “It’s a very fact-heavy dispute in a complex area of law, and the students were able to jump in quickly and help with moots and research,” he says. “The complaint for the preliminary injunction was all student-led. They delved into the fact-finding, combing through hours of transcripts from City Council meetings.”
“I think that a lot of the work that we do in the clinic, and in particular in this case, is about making sure that communities, both big and small, have the opportunity to make their voice heard in politics and have an equal voice in shaping the way that their community looks,” says Delaney Herndon ‘23. Herndon has been involved in the case since last spring, helping to outline and draft the complaint, attending counsel-wide weekly meetings, and contributing legal research to the preliminary injunction briefing. “This case is really core to the clinic’s mission because the people of Jacksonville have a very strong and well-organized community. But because of the way that Black residents are packed into these four out of fourteen districts, they have less of an opportunity to influence the way that their city looks, especially when it comes to the school board and other bodies that are so vital to people’s everyday lives. I hope that in this case, we’re able to bring the people of Jacksonville fair representation and that it will mean a real improvement in the quality of life for people.”
Greenwood emphasizes the importance of empowering communities with fair political representation: “We’re trying to build power for voters,” she says. “They can get it at the ballot boxes by casting a meaningful vote, but they gain power in a lot of other ways, too. Knowing who their government is and how to hold them to account is so important. Litigation can be a good vehicle for banding a community together against an opponent, and even if they don’t win the entire case, you can get wins along the way that build community.”
The clinicians and students remain hopeful for their clients as they wait for the judge’s decision from the hearing. You can read more about the Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP vs. City of Jacksonville case here.