Lawmakers seek to block redistricting testimony
By Brandon Larrabee
The News Service of Florida
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, FL — Republican leaders have quietly asked a Leon County judge to shield lawmakers and their aides from having to testify during a trial to determine whether the state’s congressional redistricting plan runs afoul of new standards for drawing the state’s political maps.
The attempt to shield legislators from testifying, which would also protect early drafts of redistricting proposals, echoes an attempt during this year’s legislative session to give lawmakers immunity from testifying about their duties.
In a motion filed last month and set to be heard Sept. 5, lawyers for the House and Senate said Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis should block attempts by those challenging the congressional maps to take depositions from lawmakers and staff members and to review potential re-districting proposals that were never actually filed.
Lewis is weighing a challenge to the maps under the Fair Districts amendments, which bar the consideration of political factors in redistricting proposals. Voters approved the amendments in 2010, making this redistricting cycle the first to apply the new rules.
A coalition of voting-rights organizations and a group of voters backed by the Florida Democratic Party filed suit after the districts were approved by the GOP-dominated Legislature, saying they violated the Fair Districts standards.
“Plaintiffs, who were political opponents of the challenged legislation, now seek to depose the legislators who voted contrary to Plaintiffs’ political wishes,” the motion says. “Our democracy depends on the freedom of legislators to make independent, uncoerced decisions, without intimidation or threat of deposition by political opponents.”
According to the motion, the voting rights organizations have already asked to depose Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and two legislative staffers.
The lawyers also swatted down anticipated arguments that the discovery is pointed at proving legislative intent, a key part of the Fair Districts standards, because anything that turned up would only recognize the ideas of a few people.
“Deposing individual legislators or staff members or introducing privileged legislative documents would not reveal the intent of the Legislature as a body — the only intent at issue,” the motion says.
During the legislative session, House lawmakers proposed a bill that would have spelled out legislators’ immunity — a frequently-recognized common law principle — from testifying in civil lawsuits. That measure was done in by political pressure.
In fact, in a written statement credited with helping to kill the legislative immunity bill, Senate Reapportionment Chairman and incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, suggested lawmakers would have no problem with testifying.
“As Chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, I do not want to chance even an appearance that the Legislature is not fully willing and able to explain our plans to any court of competent jurisdiction,” Gaetz said.
Democrats blasted the court motion.
“After a public outcry, Republicans retreated from a similar immunity bill during the legislative session,” Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Arceneaux said in a statement. “Now, once again, they are attempting to shield themselves from the courts and the people in what can only be called a cowardly move to conceal their own unconstitutional dealings from court review. It begs the question: what are Republicans trying to hide from the public?”