Before a court rules on whether Florida legislative leaders crossed a line when they consulted with Republican political operatives over the drawing of the state’s 2012 congressional districts, the public should also see the facts. The Florida Supreme Court already has ruled the leaders’ legislative privilege doesn’t shield them from being asked about those conversations under oath. Now an appellate court should require the same public openness for written communications between those lawmakers, their staff and the political operatives. Anything less is an affront to Florida’s rich tradition of open government and undermines the state Constitution.
The big question in Tallahassee’s most-watched legal drama is whether the 2012 congressional districts drawn by lawmakers followed the requirements of the 2010 constitutional amendment approved by voters. The amendment, a positive change from decades of political gerrymandering, requires that districts be drawn without considering political party or incumbents. Seven Florida voters and the League of Women Voters are contending in Leon County Circuit Court that the Legislature violated those new standards and that emails between lawmakers, their staff and political consultants are key to proving there was subterfuge for partisan gain.
But when one of the Republican Party of Florida consultants objected to the release of 1,883 pages of such documents, arguing that would reveal trade secrets, Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis appointed a retired state Supreme Court justice to review them. Former Justice Major Harding ruled all the documents could be shielded. Lewis, conducting his own review, said 538 pages should be part of the record. The consultant, Pat Bainter of Gainesville, is now challenging Lewis’ decision before the 1st District Court of Appeal, which has barred the emails’ release until it rules, possibly this week.
This shouldn’t be a hard call given the public’s compelling interest that lawmakers abide by the state Constitution. The once-a-decade redistricting process is as basic as representative democracy gets, often influencing which candidates win and which party has majority advantage. Four years ago, Florida voters, tired of decades of political gerrymandering, amended the Constitution to forbid lawmakers from drawing congressional and legislative districts based on either partisan or incumbent advantage, among other constraints.
In December, the Florida Supreme Court underscored the public interest, ruling that unlike other civil court matters in which legislators can usually avoid testifying, they can be forced to testify in such redistricting cases. Surely the same must be true for the emails they write and receive related to redistricting. The appeals court should stand for openness and uphold Lewis’ order allowing the emails to be publicly admitted in court.