The nonprofit First Amendment Foundation and a coalition of news organizations plan to mount a legal battle for access to the records that a Leon County judge relied on in throwing out two redrawn congressional districts as unconstitutional.
This week attorneys representing the group that includes Halifax Media Group, which owns The Gainesville Sun and Ocala Star-Banner, expect to seek permission from the Florida Supreme Court to file a friend of the court brief seeking access to sealed records that Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis used in invalidating the redistricting maps the Legislature approved for Democratic U.S. Rep Corrine Brown’s sprawling District 5 and Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster’s District 10.
Lewis ruled that, during the once-a-decade redistricting process, the Legislature relied on GOP political operatives who worked out of the public’s eye to create maps that favored the Republican Party and its candidates and violated the Fair Districts constitutional amendments.
“The judge ruled the Florida Legislature violated the Constitution, and the evidence the judge relied on in making that serious, monumental decision is of critical importance to the public,” said First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Peterson.
Lewis had access to a total of 537 pages of documents, including maps and emails, from Republican political consultant Pat Bainter, with the Gainesville firm Data Targeting. The news organizations will seek access to the portions of those records introduced as evidence at the trial, said attorney Deanna Shullman with the firm Thomas & LoCicero.
She said the records should be open to the public because they were used as evidence in “what should have been” an open and public court proceeding. As it turned out, the public and news media were cleared out of the courtroom when political consultants, including Bainter, testified.
“The whole point of public access is to let the public draw its own conclusion on the judge’s decision,” Shullman said.
Bainter has an appeal pending before the Florida Supreme Court arguing that the documents included his firm’s trade secrets and should not have been used during the redistricting trial. The friend of the court brief is related to that case. On Friday, Bainter could not be reached for comment through the Gainesville office of Data Targeting.
Some of the news organizations seeking access to the records used during the trial include the Halifax Media Group, The Associated Press, The Florida Times-Union, the Scripps properties in Florida, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sun-Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Bradenton Herald and WFLA-TV.
The Florida Press Association and the Florida Society of News Editors are also involved.
“Our FSNE position has nothing to do with who is right or wrong in the redistricting case but rather that redistricting, and the entire process of redistricting, should be open to the public,” said FSNE President Frank M. Denton, the editor of The Florida Times-Union.