DeSantis purposely dismantled a Black congressional district, attorney says as trial over map begins

Sep 26, 2023, 1:44 PM

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — On the same day Alabama Black voters scored a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, a federal trial opened in Florida in which lawyers say Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis violated the U.S. Constitution by deliberately dismantling a congressional district that favored Black candidates.

It’s one of several lawsuits around the country that are challenging Republican-drawn maps they say are gerrymandered to diminish the ability of Black voters to select a candidate of their choice. If successful, the lawsuits could help Democrats as they try to regain control of the House.

The focus in Florida is a district that stretched more than 200 miles to connect Black voters in Jacksonville and in the majority Black county of Gadsden about 200 miles (322 kilometers) to the west. DeSantis vetoed maps the Legislature drew, which would have preserved a Black district, and forced the Legislature to approve one his staff drew.

“The governor pushed and pushed and pushed,” said attorney Greg Baker. “He pressed his argument by sound bite bullying.”

The result was a map that helped Republicans earn a majority in the House and left Black voters in north Florida with only white representation in Washington. That area stretches about 360 miles (579 kilometers) from the Alabama border to the Atlantic Ocean and south from the Georgia border to Orlando in central Florida.

Common Cause Florida, the Florida branch of the NAACP and Fair Districts now are suing to have the map thrown out.

Baker, who represents the three organizations along with 10 individual voters, told a three-judge panel that DeSantis’ goal was to dismantle the district then held by Democratic Rep. Al Lawson, who is Black, and disperse it among other conservative north Florida districts easily won by white Republicans.

As the Republican Legislature last year debated a map that would have kept a Black performing district in North Florida, DeSantis used social media to say it would be “D.O.A.” if passed. After vetoing the map, DeSantis directed aide Alex Kelly to draw a new one and submit it to the Legislature, which approved it in a special session with no changes.

The 2022 election left north Florida without Black representation for the first time in 30 years, Baker said. The state’s population of more than 22 million is 17% Black.

But Mohammad Jazil, a lawyer representing the state, said DeSantis’ only goal was to draw a congressional map that was compact and relied heavily on natural boundaries rather than focused on race or party.

Jazil described Lawson’s previous district as having “tentacles” of Black voters at the extreme ends of a narrow, long territory carved out with “surgical precision,” and that DeSantis’ map “represented a shape, not tentacles” that met constitutional requirements.

Kelly testified that DeSantis never asked him to dismantle Lawson’s district because it favored Black candidates.

“He wanted to eliminate an unconstitutional district,” Kelly said. “He asked me to draw a constitutional district.”

Earlier this month, a state Circuit Court judge ruled DeSantis’ congressional map violated the state constitution, which requires districts be drawn that don’t diminish the ability of minorities to elect the candidates of their choice.

Also on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Alabama’s plea to maintain Republican-drawn congressional districts and allowed the process to rewrite the maps to benefit Black voters to proceed. Lawsuits over racially gerrymandered congressional maps have been filed in Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and other states.

The legal challenges could help Democrats as they try to regain power in the House, where Republicans have a nine-seat majority. Last week, DeSantis boasted at a news conference that the GOP wouldn’t even control the House without Florida’s performance in the 2022 election.

“Florida was instrumental in them even having the majority,” DeSantis said. “We delivered a red tsunami in Florida that gave them an extra four seats. That’s the story of the midterm.”

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DeSantis purposely dismantled a Black congressional district, attorney says as trial over map begins