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Federal trial opens in DeSantis’ congressional redistricting plan that killed a Black-held seat

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Federal trial opens in DeSantis’ congressional redistricting plan that killed a Black-held seat

Sep 26, 2023 | 4:02 pm ET
By Michael Moline
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Federal trial opens in DeSantis’ congressional redistricting plan that killed a Black-held seat
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Courthouse for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. Credit: Michael Moline

Gov. Ron DeSantis knew more than the Florida Supreme Court about the constitutionality of a congressional redistricting plan that eliminated a Black-held seat in North Florida, a top aide to the governor testified Tuesday in federal court in Tallahassee.

Alex Kelly — DeSantis’ acting chief of staff, who was waist-deep in redistricting negotiations with the Legislature last year, was the first witness called in a legal challenge to the redistricting plan the governor forced on the Legislature.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers repeatedly emphasized that the Florida Supreme Court itself drew an earlier version of the district following the extended litigation that marked the last redistricting process during the early 2010s.

Federal trial opens in DeSantis’ congressional redistricting plan that killed a Black-held seat
Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference Jan. 5, 2022.

“The Florida Supreme Court got it wrong,” Kelly declared. DeSantis, by contrast — “He knows better.”

Common Cause Florida, Fair Districts Now, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, and individual voters are suing to overturn the DeSantis map and reinstate the district at issue, which would run 200 miles between Jacksonville and Gadsden County in North Florida.

It includes sufficient Black voters to ensure them the ability to pick the representative of their choice, as required under Florida’s Fair Districts constitutional amendment, itself modeled on the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and which forbids political gerrymandering or diminishment of minority voting strength. Black Democrat Al Lawson held the seat for a decade.

Parallel legal challenges

A three judge panel consisting of Adalberto Jordan, Casey Rogers, and Alan Windsor is hearing the case, which is expected to extend through next week. In a separate challenge in state court, a trial judge ruled the DeSantis plan violated the Florida and U.S. Constitution. The appeal is now before the First District Court of Appeal.

DeSantis has argued that the district amounted to a racial gerrymander in violation of the equal protection language in the Fourteenth Amendment. He has evinced eagerness to give the U.S. Supreme Court a chance to bar any consideration of race in redistricting, notwithstanding that the amendment was one of three adopted following the Civil War to protect the right of the liberated enslaved people.

That was pretext, plaintiffs’ attorney Greg Baker said during opening arguments. “His real concern was not having any Black districts in North Florida,” he said.

For now, the map distributes Black voters in the area between four separate white-dominated congressional districts.

“This case is purely a racial discrimination case,” Baker said.

“That is what we have alleged here and that is what we will prove at this trial,” he said.

Burden of proof

Baker acknowledged that proving racial animus would be difficult but said the court should look to the history of discrimination in Florida’s voting laws; the harm to Black voters; departure from political norms including substantial breaches of precedent; and the legislative history, referring to what lawmakers said in debate.

He argued the facts here fit the bill.

“Gov. DeSantis inserted himself into the redistricting process in a manner unprecedented in Florida history,” Baker said. The Legislature resisted his efforts, “but the governor pushed and pushed and pushed until at last, its back against the wall, the Legislature folded.”

Previously, Republicans in control of the House and Senate didn’t want to pick this fight, but DeSantis was intent on having his way. The final map gave Republicans 20 of the state’s 28 representatives, contributing to the party’s narrow control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

DeSantis’ stated objection to the district was that it was too sprawled out, having been designed to capture Black voters in Duval, Leon, and Gadsden counties but lacked a community of shared interests.

Mohammad Jazil, representing the state, described the governor’s map as a compromise that produced a compact district lacking “tentacles” spiraling out to capture voters on the basis of their race.

“Every step of the way, the governor and Legislature were acting within the confines of the power given to them under the Florida Constitution,” Jazil insisted.

‘Taint’

He denied any lingering “taint” from Florida’s history of slavery and Jim Crow. Since 1992, the state has made “great strides” and the governor’s map still has sent four Black people to Congress, he said. Moreover, the governor and Legislature are entitled to a presumption of good faith, Jazil added.

“We don’t presume that our decisionmakers are acting improperly. We presume the opposite,” he said.

Plaintiff’s co-attorney Gregory Diskant pressed Kelly repeatedly about Florida’s racist history. Did he realize the area affected is sometimes called the “slave belt,” containing former plantations?”

“I am not familiar with it,” Kelly replied.

That the area is younger, less educated than the rest of the state?

“I don’t know it,” Kelly answered. In any case, he indicated, that’s all in the past. “Florida has solved all the problems,” he said.