During his testimony, an aide to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Jim Kelly, criticized past rulings by the Florida Supreme Court on redistricting. He also questioned the Legislature’s handling of redistricting and made contradictory statements compared to his own depositions. Kelly denied that the map touted by DeSantis on the campaign trail was drawn for partisan reasons or to benefit incumbents, which would violate Florida’s voter-approved anti-gerrymandering standards. In a notable exchange, Kelly claimed he had no knowledge that he was increasing the percentage of white voters in certain districts by splitting up the seat previously held by Rep. Al Lawson.
This ongoing federal trial is separate from another legal challenge in state court, both of which mainly focus on the redistricting of Lawson’s seat. In the state case, a judge ruled the redistricted district unconstitutional and ordered the Legislature to create a new map. The state court ruling has been appealed and will be reviewed by a state appeals court later this fall. The federal trial, representing groups and individuals, is expected to bring in experts to discuss Florida’s history and demonstrate whether Governor DeSantis’ actions were discriminatory. The trial is centered around DeSantis’ uncommon decision to insert himself into the redistricting process, offering his own maps and vetoing the Legislature’s initial proposal that would have preserved a district where Black voters were a significant minority.
Kelly was questioned about DeSantis’ motivations for pushing his map despite initial resistance from the Legislature. DeSantis argued that Lawson’s former district violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause. However, when asked to cite a court ruling supporting this argument, Kelly admitted he did not know. The plaintiffs’ attorneys pointed out that the Florida Supreme Court had established Lawson’s district in 2015 after ruling that the Legislature’s redistricting in violation of the state’s Fair Districts amendment. Despite stating in a deposition that he had not read the Supreme Court decision, Kelly asserted that the court had “got it wrong.” He acknowledged there were times when he disagreed with the Legislature’s analysis of redistricting and expressed dissatisfaction with how lawmakers treated an expert defending DeSantis’ proposal during a legislative hearing. Critics, such as Common Cause vice president Kathay Feng, viewed Kelly’s testimony as evasive and argued that it demonstrated a lack of clarity and historical denial from the DeSantis administration.