TALLAHASSEE — A federal trial accusing Gov. Ron DeSantis of intentionally discriminating against Black voters during redistricting concluded Tuesday after four days of intense scrutiny into the governor’s successful dismantling of voting protections long embedded in the state’s congressional maps.
Over the course of four days in court, lawyers for voting-rights organizations and lawyers for the governor battled over the legal arguments and political machinations that brought about a congressional map that eliminated a protected Black district in North Florida.
The judges — U.S. District Judges M. Casey Rogers and Alan C. Winsor, along with 11th U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan — indicated they will try to rule on the case before the end of the year. That way, if they throw out DeSantis’ map, it should give enough time for the Florida Legislature to enact a new one in time for the 2024 elections.
If either side appeals the court’s decision, that appeal goes directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At the heart of the case was DeSantis’ gamble to rewrite the rules of redistricting, a gamble that pitted him at times against the Legislature, the Florida Supreme Court, members of his own party and voting-rights groups.
Fueled by a stated conviction that Florida’s voting protections were unconstitutional, DeSantis succeeded in muscling through his own map — upending three decades of electoral precedent that had allowed Black voters in North Florida a say in Congress in the old 5th Congressional District and its predecessors, a seat that was held by former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, from 1992 until 2016 and then Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, from 2016 until 2022.
The Legislature, initially resistant, ultimately acquiesced, casting a shadow over its earlier efforts that had drawn tentative praise for following the state’s Fair Districts standards.
DeSantis and the Legislature have already lost in a separate lawsuit in state court where they conceded his map ran afoul of the state Constitution by reducing Black voters’ ability to elect a candidate of their choice, violating what’s called the nondiminishment standard. An appellate court has scheduled oral arguments for Oct. 31 in the state’s appeal of that decision.
The federal lawsuit has a higher burden of proof. Lawyers representing voting-rights groups spent the trial trying to prove DeSantis intentionally discriminated when he knowingly reduced Black voting power.
In closing arguments Tuesday, the courtroom became a theater of contrasts.
Plaintiffs wielded the governor’s own words, arguing his intentional dismantling of districts favorable to Black voters was a form of racial discrimination.
“The governor who raised the climate of racial tension in this state seems to delight in issues like this,” plaintiffs’ attorney Greg Diskant said in his closing arguments.
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But Mohammad Jazil, an attorney representing DeSantis’ secretary of state in the case, argued the Florida Supreme Court’s decision to draw a Jacksonville-to-Gadsden County district amounted to an illegal racial gerrymander, and the governor had a valid reason in rejecting similar districts that took race into account.
“We’re saying you shouldn’t be race-conscious in this process,” Jazil said.
Jazil argued the governor had a reason to oppose the options drawn by the Legislature to protect Black voters, namely that the east-to-west district wasn’t compact enough and that the Duval-only district would have made another district wrap around it to pick up the suburbs in Nassau, Clay, St. Johns and the eastern portion of Duval.
In the state case, Jazil has argued the state’s voting protections — specifically a ban on maps that reduced Black voting power — violated the U.S. Constitution on their face. But in federal court, he abandoned that argument for a more narrow one: that they violate the Equal Protection Clause only if it requires a less compact district than otherwise possible in North Florida.
The plaintiffs painstakingly recounted last year’s redistricting controversy. First, the Legislature tried to comply with the state’s protections, and then DeSantis presented his own map, which the Legislature rejected.
DeSantis mocked the Legislature’s proposal, which included two options for a district that would protect Black voters: One was a district solely in Duval County, and one was a district that stretched from Duval to Gadsden County.
He promised to veto the maps, and he requested that the Florida Supreme Court intervene to clarify whether he was required to draw districts that allow Black voters the ability to elect their preferred candidates.
After the court rejected his request and the Legislature passed its plan despite the governor’s threats, the governor vetoed the maps and ordered legislators back to Tallahassee to take up his own map.
This time, Republican leaders went along with the governor’s plans and adopted a map that, by the House redistricting chairperson’s admission, would not allow Black voters in North Florida the ability to elect a congressional representative of their choice.
Judges Rogers and Jordan pressed Jazil during his closing arguments to address what they characterized as inconsistencies in the state’s defense.
The governor and his lawyers said the Duval-only district was inappropriate because another district ended up surrounding it on three sides. But the governor didn’t oppose Jacksonville’s state Senate districts, even though they had very similar shapes.
DeSantis’ general counsel had also criticized that district for reducing the Black voting-age population too much. Yet the governor’s proposed solution reduced the Black population by even more.
“If you say I object because of X [reason] and then I give you a solution that is X plus 2, that’s a problem for me,” Jordan told Jazil.