The Florida Supreme Court stood unanimously on the side of good government Thursday when it ruled that the public has a right to see documents a Republican consultant created in connection with the Legislature’s once-a-decade redistricting process. Now, barring an ill-advised rehearing request by the document owner, Floridians will be able to judge for themselves what role outsiders played in the controversial 2012 redistricting process. The court has reaffirmed its commitment and the state Constitution’s requirement to open government.
Thursday’s order came months after Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled — based on some documents that were sealed by an emergency order of the state Supreme Court — that two congressional districts drawn in 2012 violated requirements in the state Constitution that districts be drawn without regard to protecting incumbents or political parties. State lawmakers met this summer in special sessions to draw a new map that was used in last week’s election. Now the Supreme Court has reviewed the sealed documents and ordered them opened. They belong to Gainesville political consultant Pat Bainter and his firm, Data Targeting Inc., and were found by Lewis to provide strong circumstantial evidence that he and other consultants had engaged in “a parallel redistricting process” in an effort to “subvert the political process.”
Bainter initially argued the 538 pages of documents contained trade secrets central to his business. Then, as the trial was under way, he argued that the plaintiff’s subpoena for the documents violated his First Amendment rights. On Thursday, the justices’ rejected both claims and took particular umbrage at the late filing of the First Amendment objection, suggesting it was simply a trial tactic aimed at obfuscating the “truth-finding function of our justice system.”
What is contained in the Bainter documents — which have never been viewed publicly but were reviewed by Lewis and the Supreme Court — apparently opened the door at trial for the testimony of a mystery mapmaker who allegedly submitted a congressional map in response to the Legislature’s public invitation. That map substantially matched both a map by the Republican Party of Florida but also the ultimate map the Legislature approved. In court, Alex Posada, a former Florida State University student, testified he had no knowledge of the map and never authorized it being submitted under his name.
Ideally, the contents of Bainter’s documents would have been made public at trial rather than risk the public’s trust of the ultimate verdict. But the Supreme Court has corrected that misstep, and Floridians should soon have a clearer picture of just what influences played a role in the Legislature’s first maps. That’s the purpose of open government, so that elected officials are accountable for their actions. Always.