Claim of racial discrimination is a key as trial starts over Florida congressional redistricting

Florida redistricting
Redrawn Congressional districts proposed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in April, 2022.

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Attorneys for voting-rights groups Tuesday began trying to convince a panel of federal judges that an overhaul of a North Florida congressional district in 2022 was motivated at least in part by racial discrimination and violated the U.S. Constitution.

The three-judge panel began a trial in a challenge by plaintiffs such as Common Cause and the NAACP to a redistricting plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature. The case focuses on North Florida’s Congressional District 5, which in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson but was dramatically changed last year and was won by a white Republican in November’s elections.

During opening arguments, Greg Baker, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the case is “purely about racial discrimination,” which he sought to pin on DeSantis. He said the former District 5, which stretched from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee, was split up last year and absorbed into four districts.

“As a result, the Black voters in North Florida have lost the ability to elect a candidate of their choice,” Baker said.

But Mohammad Jazil, an attorney for the state, said the redistricting plan was driven by issues such as making districts compact and following geographic and political boundaries, such as major waterways and city boundaries. He also challenged the notion that the plaintiffs could show the map was motivated by racial discrimination.

“We don’t presume (legally) that our decision-makers are acting inappropriately,” Jazil said.

The trial is expected to last at least through part of next week. The first witness called to testify Tuesday morning was Alex Kelly, DeSantis’ acting chief of staff who played a major role in drawing the redistricting plan.

The plaintiffs contend that the overhaul of District 5 violated the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment. The 14th Amendment ensures equal protection, while the 15th Amendment prohibits denying or abridging the right to vote based on race.

The federal court trial started a little more than three weeks after Leon County Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh ruled in a separate case that the District 5 overhaul violated part of the Florida Constitution. The state has appealed Marsh’s ruling to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Marsh said the plan violated a 2010 state constitutional amendment known as the Fair Districts amendment, which set standards for redistricting. Part of that amendment barred drawing districts that would “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.”

In the past, the sprawling District 5 was drawn to incorporate areas with sizable Black populations. Under the plan passed last year, it was condensed in the Jacksonville area. DeSantis contended that the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause prevented using a district similar to the previous shape of District 5 because it would involve racial gerrymandering.

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the plan during a special session after DeSantis vetoed a proposal that could have led to electing a Black candidate in District 5, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argue. The vetoed proposal included creating a district in Duval County that would have included a relatively large Black population. As a fallback, the proposal would have generally kept the old shape of District 5 that elected Lawson.

During the opening arguments Tuesday, Baker focused, in part, on DeSantis’ relatively unusual role in pushing through the plan. He said, for example, the vetoed legislative proposal that could have led to electing a Black candidate in Duval County would have addressed issues such as compactness.

“His real concern was having any Black district in North Florida, compact or not,” Baker said.

But Jazil disputed that DeSantis’ role was related to racial discrimination.

“It doesn’t make it unprecedented in an unconstitutional manner,” Jazil said. “They do not show discriminatory intent.”

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