By Gary Fineout
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida news media organizations, including The Associated Press, are asking the state Supreme Court to make public documents that were used in the state’s landmark redistricting trial.
Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled this month that the state Legislature illegally drew Florida’s congressional districts to primarily benefit the Republican Party.
Lewis based part of that ruling on emails and documents from GOP political consultants that were not made public. The judge said in his ruling against state legislators that the evidence showed a “conspiracy to influence and manipulate the Legislature into a violation of its constitutional duty.”
The consultants contended that use of the documents violated their First Amendment rights and sued to keep them from being heard.
The Florida Supreme Court allowed Lewis to use the evidence during the 12-day trial if it was not discussed in open court. But the high court recently agreed to consider whether the evidence should have been kept secret.
The AP – along with many of the state’s major newspapers, WFLA in Tampa, the First Amendment Foundation and the Florida Press Association – filed a motion Monday asking to present legal briefs on the case.
The court filing from the media organizations said the case “raises important questions about the right of access to public records in Florida: whether documents introduced into evidence and relied upon by the trial court in a proceeding attacking as unconstitutional secrecy in the redistricting process can be kept, well, secret.”
The Florida House and Florida Senate are not objecting to the media organizations filing legal briefs in the case. The motion is opposed, however, by lawyers representing consulting firm Data Targeting and its employees. Data Targeting is having its legal bills paid by the Republican Party of Florida.
Redistricting occurs every 10 years based on U.S. Census numbers. In 2010, the state’s voters adopted “Fair Districts” amendments to the state constitution saying legislators could no longer draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party, a practice known as gerrymandering.
Groups suing the Legislature contended that GOP consultants helped create a “shadow” process with the intent of drawing districts to favor Republicans.
Lewis agreed there was enough evidence to show that two districts violated the new standards. One is the sprawling territory stretching from Jacksonville to Orlando that’s home to Democratic U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown. The other is a central Florida district that is home to U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.
Legislative leaders have said they do not plan to appeal the decision. But they have asked Lewis to let the current congressional districts remain in place for the 2014 elections.