High court rules Florida lawmakers must testify on redistricting

Brandon Larrabee | The News Service of Florida | 12/13/2013

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers enjoy protection from being forced to testify in most civil cases, the Florida Supreme Court ruled late Friday, but that protection does not extend to a challenge to the state's congressional districts working its way through the courts.

The landmark, 5-2 ruling was the first time the justices have recognized a "legislative privilege" in Florida. But it came as something of a pyrrhic victory for lawmakers who were hoping to avoid testifying about the 2012 redistricting process.

Instead, the court found that the need to enforce anti-gerrymandering redistricting standards approved by voters in 2010 outweighed the damage that could be done by forcing lawmakers to testify.

"We therefore reject the Legislature's argument that requiring the testimony of individual legislators and legislative staff members will have a 'chilling effect' among legislators in discussion and participation in the reapportionment process, as this type of 'chilling effect' was the precise purpose of the constitutional amendment outlawing partisan political gerrymandering and improper discriminatory intent," Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the court.

She was joined by Justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince, Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry. The five justices who backed Friday's opinion often make up the majority when the court is divided.

Pariente's opinion upheld a provision of a ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis that drew a distinction between testimony about lawmakers' "thoughts or impressions" about the maps — which would still be privileged — and other testimony, which wouldn't.

In May, the 1st District Court of Appeal threw out Lewis' ruling, saying that it violated legislative privilege, which courts have recognized but has never been before the Supreme Court, and saying that the standard Lewis proposed to use for deciding which testimony would be allowed was unworkable.

The Supreme Court's ruling on Friday dismissed those concerns.

"In this case, for the first time in the recorded history of our Republic, a court has ruled that state legislators are required to submit to interrogation in a civil case concerning their legislative activities. ... Nothing in [the redistricting standards] justifies this evisceration of the constitutional legislative privilege," Canady said.

Canady was joined in the ruling by Chief Justice Ricky Polston; the two of them are frequently more conservative than the other justices.

Spokespersons for the House and Senate said lawyers were still reviewing the ruling Friday afternoon.

In a statement, League of Women Voters of Florida President Deirdre Macnab, whose organization is part of a coalition challenging the maps, hailed the decision.

"The people of Florida should salute today's action by the Florida Supreme Court, which will help guarantee radically reduced shenanigans during the state's redistricting process," Macnab said. "No amount of kicking and screaming by legislators should prevent the will of the people from being followed."

But in a sharply worded dissent, Justice Charles Canady blasted the majority's opinion, saying it was unprecedented.

Legal battle over state Senate districts coming to an end

TALLAHASSEE - A contentious battle over Florida state senate districts is coming to an end. read more »

Senate won't appeal redistricting ruling

Clearing the way for elections later this year with a map that could boost Democrats' numbers in the Senate, Republican leaders decided Wednesday not to appeal a Leon County judge's ruling setting districts for the chamber's 40 seats. read more »

Florida Senate won't appeal ruling on new districts

TALLAHASSEE — Senate leaders said Wednesday that they will not appeal last month's court ruling that sided with a voters' coalition in setting new district boundaries. read more »

Florida Legislature won't appeal redistricting ruling

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature is giving up the fight and will not contest a court ruling that redraws all of the state's 40 state senate districts for the 2016 election cycle. read more »

Editorial: Republicans should accept redistricting defeat and drop talk of appeals

For a brief moment last week it appeared the Florida Legislature had come to its senses and was willing to accept a judge's ruling on the boundaries for new state Senate districts. read more »

Renumbering state Senate districts triggers political scramble

TALLAHASSEE — It may sound like a simple process, but the Florida Senate's random renumbering of all its districts statewide Tuesday touched off a series of complicated twists that one key lawmaker said only adds more chaos to a continuing redistricting saga. read more »