TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Did Florida's governor diminish Black voting power and violate the U.S. Constitution?
A panel of three federal judges started hearing arguments Tuesday as the latest legal challenge against Florida's new congressional districts began. The decision could prompt a redraw and change the balance of power in the U.S. House.
"I think that we're excited because we believe that federal courts are going to do the right thing and strike down this discriminatory voting map," Amy Keith, the program director of Common Cause Florida.
Their legal team's argument hinges on former U.S. Rep. Al Lawson's old district, Congressional District 5. Black voters there were said to have had a better shot at electing lawmakers of their choosing.
That is until last year when Gov. Ron DeSantis chopped the area up into four smaller districts. It came after he rejected two options from the state Legislature and pushed through his own. The reliably blue territory then elected four white Republicans during the 2022 midterms.
"The reality is that the other alternatives that the Legislature put forward, which had compact districts, which protected African American voters as well — he said he was going to veto them," Kathay Feng, the vice president of programs at Common Cause. "He said it was dead on arrival."
Attorneys for the state argue everything was legal, backed by the GOP-controlled Legislature eventually, and said the governor was seeking fairness in North Florida. DeSantis, himself, defended the move in April of last year.
"We are not going to have a 200-mile gerrymander that divvies up people based on the color of their skin," DeSantis said. "That is wrong. That is not the way we've governed in the state of Florida."
The governor's office declined to weigh in further on the matter Tuesday.
"Our comments will be contained within our legal filings," press officials said.
Meanwhile, DeSantis' acting chief of staff, Alex Kelly, was on the stand for day one of the trial. He drafted the governor's map and told the court DeSantis had a "constitutional objection" to the old district and that race wasn't a factor in the crafting of the new map.
The three-judge panel will eventually determine if the current map stands. Their decision, however, could likely get appealed and may end up before the U.S. Supreme Court for a final verdict.
Plaintiffs told the judges they estimated witness testimony would take until at least next Wednesday. Afterward, it will be the state's turn to offer a defense.
If this case sounds familiar, that's because it's already under appeal in state court.
A Leon County judge recently ruled the governor's chopping up of that North Florida district violated protections in the state constitution. Judge J. Lee Marsh agreed with plaintiffs that the new districts diminished Black voting power and were prohibited under Florida's Fair Districts Amendment. He ordered the Legislature to draw a new map to remedy the situation.
The state appealed, and the higher court has put things on hold until it has finished its legal review of the case.