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Harvard Law School Clinic Represents Coalition Alleging Racial Gerrymandering in Jacksonville City Council Maps

Harvard Law School's Election Law Clinic is representing individuals and civil rights groups in a lawsuit against the City of Jacksonville, alleging racial gerrymandering in election maps.
Harvard Law School's Election Law Clinic is representing individuals and civil rights groups in a lawsuit against the City of Jacksonville, alleging racial gerrymandering in election maps. By Julian J. Giordano
By Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: February 27, 2023, at 4:16 p.m.

Harvard Law School’s Election Law Clinic is representing a coalition of individuals and civil rights groups in a lawsuit against the City of Jacksonville, alleging racial gerrymandering in election maps approved by the city council in March 2022.

The suit alleges that seven of Jacksonville’s 14 city council districts and three of its seven school board districts were unconstitutionally drawn by the city council due to racial gerrymandering.

The Election Law Clinic filed the lawsuit last May in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of 10 individual plaintiffs, the Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP, the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, the ACLU of Florida Northeast Chapter, and Florida Rising.

“We say that it’s a violation of the 14th Amendment — the Equal Protection Clause — and that the remedy would be to redraw the districts to better enfranchise communities of color,” said Ruth Greenwood, director of the Election Law Clinic.

Nicholas Warren, an attorney at the ACLU of Florida, said the original maps undermined the voting power of racial minorities by concentrating Black voters into four city council districts.

“Just looking at it, you can tell it divides the city along racial lines — really surgically picks out Black voters in specific neighborhoods or specific streets to place them into the four packed districts,” Warren said. “That results in the surrounding districts being artificially stripped of Black voters.”

Warren added he was concerned that representatives of districts “stripped” of Black voters would not have an incentive to “tend to the needs or campaign for or worry about the interests of the small minority of Black voters in their districts.”

The City of Jacksonville declined a request for comment, citing a policy against commenting on pending litigation.

The next Jacksonville City Council Election will take place on March 21, during which all seats of the council will be decided. Last month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court order to use a map submitted by the plaintiffs for the March election.

Greenwood said the Election Law Clinic chose to back legal efforts in Jacksonville in part due to activist efforts “on the ground.”

“I think it’s hard to translate legal findings into actual political power without there being organizers on the ground, and so here there is actually an amazing organizing community,” she said. “The litigation is one of the tools in all of the work that they’re doing to try to improve the outcomes for people of color in this city.”

Dwight Bullard, a former Florida state senator who serves as senior policy advisor at Florida Rising — a plaintiff in the lawsuit — said the disputed city council maps are part of a “tradition of racial gerrymandering” across the United States.

“We’d like to see a Jacksonville that’s reflective of its demographics,” he said. “It’s not really a question of just identity politics. It’s what we’ve already seen as a trendline in Jacksonville.”

Greenwood said she hopes the case will set a “good precedent” for future racial gerrymandering litigation.

“I think strengthening the way we can bring racial gerrymandering claims is good not only for Jacksonville but for people of color across the country,” Greenwood said.

Correction: March 1, 2023

A previous version of this story misquoted Ruth Greenwood, director of the Election Law Clinic. She referenced the Equal Protection Clause, not the "protection clause."

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @neilhshah15.

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