Tallahassee's bonfire of the alibis

Daniel Ruth | Tampa Bay Times | 12/19/2013

You'll probably find this hard to believe, but there are some cynics afoot who are of the opinion that a lobbyist charm bracelet of Tallahassee Republicans might have cooked the books when redrawing the state's political maps in 2012.

Just where this sort of snarky distrust comes from is anybody's guess.

Opponents of the new lines accuse the Republican majority in the Legislature of pressing a heavy thumb on the scales of fairness, ensuring new districts maintained a Republican majority. These ditherers of democracy, the League of Women Voters and 11 other plaintiffs, have filed suit suggesting the redistricting process more closely resembled the victors carving up post-World War II Europe.

Needless to say, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz got their jodhpurs in a wad over such accusations.

But any doubts about the legitimacy of the redistricting process could be easily cleared up before you could say "Where do I drop off my campaign check?" if Weatherford and Gaetz and all the other Republicans involved in redrawing districts would simply submit themselves to testifying under oath to sort out any misunderstandings. They could merely hand over all the documents, emails, voice messages and notes created during redistricting to prove once and for all that this effort was so apolitically Simon Pure, it made the Founding Fathers' Constitutional Convention look like a Raccoon Lodge meeting.

But Republican leaders claimed a special privilege from being grilled under oath on how they redrew districts, as if the Legislature was akin to the College of Cardinals.

To paraphrase last week's Florida Supreme Court ruling, the justices told the whining Republicans they had to stop all this privilege balderdash and start testifying.

Tragically, a series of unfortunate events happened. In a sort of "my dog ate my evidence" scenario, it seems untold numbers of emails, notes, voice messages and other Republican materials related to what went on behind the scenes in the redistricting toga party have been — alas — destroyed.

Great sorrow over the bonfire of the alibis arose from the Capitol.

Mouthpieces for the House and Senate tut-tutted that the shred-a-palooza was simply a "routine" document destruction process (much in the way that Cheech and Chong's "Dave's Not Here" is a routine).

The legislators' legal brain trust argues that such vaunted elected officials and their factotums can't be required to testify about their actions and (egad!) turn over all manner of communications, lest there be a "chilling effect" on the redistricting process.

But that is exactly the point. Lawmakers should know they will be subject to legal review under oath resulting in punitive sanctions if they attempt to finagle legislative districts to protect a disproportionate political advantage.

Federal courts have stipulated that when a party has a reasonable expectation of litigation it has an obligation to preserve any and all relevant records. Since redistricting efforts are almost always subject to legal challenges, Republicans certainly had to know that everything from complex documents to pizza receipts would be sought by various parties who viewed the process as if the Grand Old Partitioners of the Florida House and Senate were divvying up the early Italian city-states.

If Florida's Sunshine Law is supposed to allow the public open access to meetings, legislative bills, financial records and all the other elements of government and governance, then certainly citizens should also have a right to know how a bunch of self-interested partisan pols arrived at the decisions they made to draw squiggles on a map. And they should see the paperwork and digital records to boot.

Otherwise all you're left with is Government in the Punchline.

© 2013 Tampa Bay Times

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