Florida Gov. DeSantis discriminated against Black voters by dismantling congressional district, lawyer argues

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis racially discriminated against Black voters by endorsing a congressional map that scattered them across four North Florida districts won by white Republicans and erased a seat held by a Black Democrat, attorneys for voters’ groups argued Tuesday in federal court.

The opening day of a trial before a three-judge panel saw attorneys for Common Cause, the NAACP, Fair Districts Now, and individual voters press for reasons behind DeSantis’ drive to eliminate the Tallahassee to Jacksonville, Florida, district held by U.S. Rep. Al Lawson.

"The governor was undeterred in his mission to eliminate the Black opportunity district in North Florida," said Gregory Baker, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

DeSantis pushed the congressional map on the Florida Legislature, vetoing last year two maps approved by lawmakers – one which created a Black-leaning district confined to Duval County and a backup plan that retained the east-west seat held by Lawson.

The GOP-dominated Legislature approved the DeSantis plan when called back to the Capitol for a special session. Republicans won 20 of Florida’s 28 congressional districts in last fall’s elections, a four-seat pick-up for the GOP which helped the party regain control of the U.S. House.

Called as the first witness in the trial, expected to last more than a week, was J. Alex Kelly, the governor’s chief mapmaker and currently, his acting chief-of-staff.

Kelly said DeSantis viewed recreating an east-west North Florida district favorable to a Black candidate as an illegal racial gerrymander, even though it had been first formed by the Florida Supreme Court in 2015.

Kelly said DeSantis believed that the district violated the federal constitution’s equal protection clause, essentially favoring Black voters over white voters.

"He never once commented on eliminating a Black opportunity district," Kelly said about what he called the governor’s "race-neutral" strategy, under questioning from plaintiffs’ attorney Gregory Diskant.

"He asked me to draw a compliant map."

Court got it wrong, staff chief says

Diskant pointed out that while the governor may have his opinion about the law, the state Supreme Court had ordered the district put in place, a move which seemingly carried more weight.

“The Florida Supreme Court got it wrong,” Kelly testified.

One of the judges, M. Casey Rodgers, an appointee of former Republican President George W. Bush, also struggled to learn how DeSantis determined that the Tallahassee to Jacksonville district violated the equal protection clause, a provision added to the U.S. Constitution following the Civil War largely to protect Black citizens.

“As interpreted by what court?” Rodgers asked Kelly about DeSantis’ conclusion. “Is there a court decision the governor cites that agrees with him on the equal protection clause?”

Kelly acknowledged there was no such ruling.

But Mohammad Jazil, attorney for the state, echoed the argument, accusing the voters’ groups of “turning equal protection on its head.”

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DeSantis, during his faltering campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, has credited his actions with giving his party command of Congress.

Now, though, the governor is struggling to keep those Republican-friendly congressional boundaries in place.

The map has already been ruled unconstitutional by Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh, who rejected the DeSantis administration’s contention that the state constitution’s prohibition against weakening or eliminating minority-leaning districts conflicted with the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause.

Gov. Ron DeSantis broke up Black-dominated district and put its pieces into 4 Majority-White congressional districts in north Florida
Gov. Ron DeSantis broke up Black-dominated district and put its pieces into 4 Majority-White congressional districts in north Florida

Marsh’s ruling is now before the 1st District Court of Appeal. The DCA surprisingly took control of the case despite agreements from both the state and plaintiffs, which include Black Voters Matter and the League of Women Voters, that any appeal should go straight to the Florida Supreme Court.

Amid growing concerns about a potential delay in deciding the state case, this week’s federal trial possibly could lead to a swifter outcome on whether state lawmakers must redraw the congressional map and restore Lawson’s old Tallahassee to Jacksonville district before next year’s elections.

Lawson has said he would consider being a candidate if the district was restored.

Fear of foot-dragging

Plaintiffs fear the 1st DCA, whose judges were appointed by Republican governors, and the Florida Supreme Court, where five of the seven members were picked by DeSantis, could take their time deciding the case.

Even if the map is ruled invalid, timing could leave it in place through the 2024 elections, when Republicans’ narrow control of the U.S. House is again at stake. Florida’s four-seat GOP gain last year was the party’s biggest improvement in the nation.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings this summer may have bolstered the claims of voters’ groups suing over Florida’s congressional map.

Even as the trial opened Tuesday in Tallahassee’s U.S. District Court, justices again acted, refusing Alabama’s request to reinstate a congressional map drawn by the Republican-held Legislature which had only one majority-Black district.

Instead, it’s likely that a new map will be in place before next year’s elections.

Justices in a 5-4 ruling in June said that Alabama lawmakers had denied Black voters a reasonable chance to elect a second U.S. representative of their choice.

While limited to Alabama, the latest decision will likely affect other states, including Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, and Texas, where courtroom clashes over race and redistricting are underway.

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida redistricting trial: Did Ron DeSantis map target Black voters?