TALLAHASSEE, Florida — The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature scored a victory Wednesday in a long-running battle over how lawmakers drew up new districts for themselves and Congress.
A divided state appeals court ruled that legislators and legislative staff don't have to answer questions related to one of three lawsuits challenging the districts adopted last year.
The coalition of groups that sued over Florida's current congressional districts wanted to get answers from legislators and staff on why they drew the new maps the way they did. Their lawsuit contends legislators violated the "Fair Districts" standards that mandate that districts can't be drawn to protect incumbents or members of a certain party.
A lower court sided last October with the groups, which include the League of Women Voters of Florida, National Council of La Raza and Florida Common Cause.
But the 1ST District Court of Appeal decided by a 2-to-1 margin that legislators and legislative staff enjoy a long-standing privilege that shields them from having to testify about legislative business.
Judge T.K. Wetherell II, who is the son of a former House speaker, wrote in the opinion that he "was confident" that those challenging the new districts could prove "improper intent" by existing legislative records and analysis instead of putting lawmakers under oath.
But Chief Judge Robert Benton dissented from the opinion and stated the legislative privilege should not be used to cloak what happened during last year's process.
"Partisan political shenanigans are not state secrets," Benton wrote. " ... Petitioners have fallen far short of demonstrating why failing to keep this quintessentially public business under wraps would work irreparable harm."
House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, both of whom led the redistricting effort, praised the ruling.
"The court's opinion protects legislators from being intimidated by outside interests who would seek to bully or intimidate them and ultimately seek to use the redistricting process for their own nefarious purposes," the two leaders said in a joint statement.
Adam Schachter, an attorney for the coalition groups, said his group was reviewing the ruling, but he said in a statement that "we continue to believe that the public has a right to know what occurred in the backrooms where these maps were created."
Every 10 years, lawmakers redraw legislative and congressional districts based on new population figures. In 2010 voters approved the "Fair Districts" amendments.
Legislators last year adopted maps that led to the election of more Democrats to both Congress and the Legislature. But critics contend the final districts still do not reflect Florida's political divide.
The lawsuits filed so far have already caused secrets to spill out that show that both sides may have used partisan political consultants to draw up maps in violation of the new standards.
For example, attorneys for the coalition groups unearthed documents showing top GOP officials met in late 2010 to brainstorm redistricting with political consultants and legislative staffers after the amendments had already passed.
But lawyers for the Legislature obtained documents that showed Fair Districts also used political consultants to draw up its own maps that would help out Democratic candidates
One email even showed how one consultant wanted "to scoop as many Jews out" as possible out of two cities and put them in the Congressional district that is to home to U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. Another email stated that the "underlying goal" was to increase "safe Democratic seats" and the number of "competitive seats."
Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout