By Gary Fineout
A Florida appeals court on Thursday blocked the release of documents that are supposed to be key evidence in an ongoing trial to determine whether state legislators broke the law when drawing up new political maps.
The groups suing the Florida Legislature had obtained documents from a Gainesville-based political consulting firm and wanted to use them to show that legislators drew up congressional districts in 2012 in a way that would help Republicans.
But lawyers hired by the Republican Party of Florida to represent Data Targeting and consultant Pat Bainter argued that the documents are trade secrets and should remain confidential. Judge Terry Lewis disagreed and ruled that they could be used in the redistricting trial that started this week.
But in a one-page ruling the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned Lewis and said the evidence cannot be used. The three judges on the panel, all of whom were appointed by Republican governors, said they would explain the decision later.
Mark Herron, a Tallahassee attorney representing a group of voters suing the Legislature, said it would take a day or two for the groups to “consider and assess all of our options.”
The ruling came on the fourth day of the landmark trial that marks the first time new standards adopted by voters in 2010 are being used to challenge how the Legislature drew up new congressional districts. The trial is also unique because Florida’s two legislative leaders were forced to testify this week in court.
The “Fair Districts” constitutional amendments say districts cannot be drawn in a way to favor incumbents or members of a political party.
The groups suing, which include the League of Women Voters, contend that legislators used a “shadow” process to disguise what they were doing. Evidence introduced so far has shown that one Republican consultant got maps from a top House aide before they were made public. Also, legislators in charge of the process met with GOP consultants in early 2011 to discuss redistricting. And the final deal on a new congressional map was reached behind closed doors.
Attorneys for the Legislature have denied any wrongdoing, but if the court finds the current districts unconstitutional it could force legislators to redraw them.
House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz testified this week that they did not communicate with consultants and did not draw up maps to favor Republicans. Weatherford has noted that four GOP incumbent members of Congress have been defeated since the new maps were passed in 2012, two of them by Democrats.
Much of the trial has centered on the push by the Senate to increase the number of black voters in a sprawling district that stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando but also bends westward into part of Gainesville.