Reporters and the public were removed from a Tallahassee courtroom and a live television stream was shut off Thursday as the trial over Florida’s congressional redistricting moved behind closed doors. Secrecy undermines confidence in representative government and the courts. Floridians ought to be able see all of the testimony and documents when the dispute is as fundamental as whether their congressional districts were illegally drawn. The blame rests squarely on the Republicans who control Tallahassee, drew the districts and don’t want the public to understand how they did it.
The lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and others already would be dead in the water if not for the Florida Supreme Court. It took the Supreme Court to force Republican lawmakers such as House Speaker Will Weatherford to testify and not hide behind legislative privilege. This week, it took the Supreme Court to set aside a terrible decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal and clear the way for a Republican consultant’s documents to be used as evidence in the trial. Those 538 pages must be awfully damaging to the state’s defense given how hard the Republicans were fighting to keep them out or at least keep them secret.
The Supreme Court has made a commendable effort to ensure that a constitutional amendment approved by voters seeking fairly drawn congressional districts was not violated by state lawmakers. But the court’s ruling on the Republican consultant’s documents was not a complete victory for the public. It allowed those documents to be kept secret for now and for the trial to be closed while the documents are discussed. That is a pragmatic approach to keep the trial going without ruling yet on the merits of consultant Pat Bainter’s illogical argument that his materials are somehow trade secrets. And the documents may become public in the future.
Yet closing courtrooms and sealing documents sends a terrible message to Floridians cynical about government and the role money and political muscle plays in Tallahassee. The suspicion is that the system is rigged to protect the powerful. Those suspicions are increased when the public cannot see some of the most important testimony and documents in a trial that goes to the heart of whether they are fairly represented in Congress.
The lawsuit has revealed more reasons to be skeptical about whether Republicans strictly followed the intent of the constitutional amendment, which required that congressional districts be drawn without regard to protecting incumbents or political parties. There were secret meetings between Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz to agree on the congressional map. Legislative staffers met with Republican consultants outside the Capitol, and consultants drew maps but have fuzzy memories about what they did with them. A former college student said in a deposition Thursday he did not draw a map that was submitted under his name and credited by lawmakers as the basis for the districts they approved. Then the courtroom was closed Thursday afternoon.
Sunshine, not more darkness, is the best prescription for exposing whether lawmakers violated the Florida Constitution and ignored the will of voters who demanded fairly drawn congressional districts.