TALLAHASSEE, Florida — The Supreme Court ruled Friday that lawmakers can be forced to testify as part of a lawsuit challenging whether they violated the constitution when they drew new congressional districts.
The decision is a victory for the League of Women Voters and others who are suing over the new political boundaries approved in 2012. They argue that the Republican controlled Legislature didn't follow a constitutional amendment that says it can't draw districts intended to protect incumbents or members of a certain political party.
The groups want to question lawmakers about the process, but lawyers representing the House and Senate argued such a move would violate a long-standing privilege that shields legislators from testifying in lawsuits. The lawyers said it would have a "chilling" effect on lawmakers if they knew they'd have to testify about how they make laws.
It would have a chilling effect, the court agreed. But that's the point. The court said that legislative privilege exists, but not when the constitution directs lawmakers' behavior.
"We therefore reject the Legislature's argument that requiring the testimony of individual legislators and legislative staff members will have a 'chilling effect' among legislators in discussion and participation in the reapportionment process, as this type of 'chilling effect' was the precise purpose of the constitutional amendment outlawing partisan political gerrymandering and improper discriminatory intent," the court wrote in its opinion.
Every 10 years, lawmakers redraw legislative and congressional districts based on new population figures. Voters in 2010 mandated that legislators draw districts based on existing geographic and political boundaries and not in an effort to gain a political upper hand.
After the "Fair Districts" amendments legislators adopted maps that led to the election of more Democrats. But critics contend the final districts still do not accurately reflect Florida's political divide.
"We are very pleased with the Court's ruling. Florida voters, through the passage of the Fair Districts Amendments, demanded an open and transparent redistricting process. With this ruling, the public can finally learn the truth," said Adam Schachter, a lawyer representing the League of Women Voters.
Neither House Speaker Will Weatherford's nor Senate President Don Gaetz's offices would comment on the decision.
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