A plan in Florida to review its judicial circuits will disenfranchise Black voters, the most reliable political base for reform prosecutors.
This story was produced in partnership with Slate.
This and that this and that This summer, Republicans in Florida launched an under-the-radar, yet incredibly effective, attack on criminal justice reformers in the state. In mid-June, the Republican speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives asked the state Supreme Court to create a commission to look into redrawing judicial circuit borders. By the end of the month, the Florida Supreme Court had created a commission to review its judicial circuits, moving toward a devastating judicial gerrymander. The effort was a seemingly technocratic act, but it’s actually one of the most direct assaults on the politics of criminal justice reform after years of attacks by state-level Republican officials on reforms adopted in their more Democratic cities.
It also reflects a savvy understanding—and exploitation—of what makes politicians so consistently embrace ineffective, oppressive, and punitive policies.
In most states, prosecutors and judges are elected or appointed by county. The borders of counties are fairly fixed. But Florida is one of about 14 states that defines the jurisdictions—and thus the electorate in them—for prosecutors and judges as multi-county circuits. The state’s 67 counties are consolidated into 20 judicial circuits. In theory, the request from Florida House Speaker Paul Renner was made in the name of cost savings and the demographic and population changes since 1969, when the circuit maps were last drawn. But these borders are easy to change in politically motivated ways, and create a lot of opportunities for opportunistic map-drawing.
Such judicial gerrymandering is new, but it’s reminiscent of the long-established legislative gerrymander, where politicians draw the maps of legislative districts—even against opposition from the courts—in ways designed to cement the current majority’s power for years to come.
Like legislative gerrymandering, judicial gerrymandering will disenfranchise Black voters—but by making it nearly impossible for reform prosecutors to win elections. Opponents of reform prosecutors have long maintained that support for reform is an indulgence of progressive white voters in safe neighborhoods who do not bear the (alleged) costs of the reformers’ policies. But it’s clear that reform prosecutors’ most reliable political base is Black urban communities. In my recent study of precinct-level voting decisions across multiple cities that have both chosen and rejected reform candidates, I’ve found that majority-Black precincts, including if not especially those with high levels of gun violence, generally favor reformers.
This support doesn’t stem from a “soft on crime” perspective: These same voters likely vote for more punitive mayors. Instead, it reflects the beliefs of many of these voters that have developed from lifelong exposure to the costs of both crime and ineffective enforcement. They’ve concluded that harsh charging and sentencing practices either fail to deliver sufficient safety, or do so at too large a cost, a cost borne by their neighbors and family members; for them, complicated, three-dimensional people in their lives, not abstract “criminals” to be “punished.”
This pattern holds true in Florida, where both of the reform prosecutors removed by Gov. Ron DeSantis—Andrew Warren in the 13th Circuit (Hillsborough County; i.e., Tampa) and Monique Worrell in the 9th Circuit (Orange and Osceola counties; i.e., Orlando)—performed best in Black communities and struggled against tougher-on-crime opponents in their circuits’ whiter suburbs.
In Hillsborough, Warren defeated his Republican opponent, Mike Perotti, by about 75,000 votes, a margin of victory that was almost exactly that of Joe Biden’s in the county. Simply merging Hillsborough with neighboring Pasco County—where Trump won by 80,000 votes—would likely eliminate Warren’s margin. In Orlando, Worrell’s 200,000-vote win may be hard to gerrymander away. But adding in one or two more-conservative counties with more-conservative Democratic voters (like neighboring Brevard county, which is 83 percent white and went for Trump 58–41) would likely be sufficient to wipe out Worrell’s narrow, pluralistic 18,000-vote primary win over the more conservative Judge Belvin Perry Jr.
So, consolidating the more urban circuits with even just one or two of their more rural neighboring counties would likely shift future votes decisively away from reformers. This is a troubling outcome: By expanding judicial circuits to include more voters who are relatively unaffected by the costs of both crime and enforcement, it will effectively silence the political voice of those most affected by crime. For all of crime’s widespread political salience, crime itself—and thus enforcement—is concentrated in very small, disproportionately urban areas. These areas are most likely to vote for reformers, because they are most aware of how ineffective harsh, punitive responses can be.
The power of judicial gerrymandering by Florida Republicans is that unlike other state efforts to undermine local control—like Texas’ notorious Death Star bill, which a Houston court recently found unconstitutional—is that reshaping judicial district maps in the name of efficiency is a far less obvious strike against reform, and thus harder one to rally opposition against.
Judicial redistricting in Florida would almost certainly be a near-fatal blow against the reform prosecutor movement in the state. But the success of Speaker Renner’s proposal isn’t guaranteed. State prosecutor associations around the country have often been effective at blocking legislation they oppose, and many Florida prosecutors are not thrilled about the idea of new judicial districts. The Intercept’s Akela Lacy found that even some more rural, conservative prosecutors opposed the proposal—not out of any love of reform—but because consolidation would likely undermine their own power. Even if consolidation would not change the party affiliation of the prosecutors elected in the new, bigger circuits, it would move the center of gravity away from the smaller towns and toward the urban center (and likely cost the more rural incumbents their jobs).
But if Florida Republicans succeed here, I would expect that we will see other states follow suit. Almost every state that employs judicial circuits—and thus has the ability to engage in some sort of judicial gerrymander—is located in the South, where Republican opposition to reform efforts in Democratic-led cities is at its most intense. The backlash against reform is not in any way waning yet, and Florida is opening yet another front in that struggle