Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Under the veil of ‘legislative privilege’

 

OUR OPINION: Florida Supreme Court will hear appeal in Fair Districts redistricting process

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

When Florida voters overwhelmingly approved the Fair Districts Constitutional Amendment in 2010 they demanded compact legislative and congressional districts.

They demanded a process that would put political partisanship aside and focus on keeping communities intact as much as possible, while also ensuring minority voters were not disenfranchised.

The point of the Fair Districts amendment was for the Legislature to stop the gerrymandering game that has shielded incumbents and their political parties for too long, leaving voters with few choices come election time.

Now, three years later, the issue of fairness remains a secret legislative mystery wrapped in a political riddle: Who can draw Florida’s districts — legislators or political operatives?

That’s at the heart of the constitutional question that the Florida Supreme Court will consider on Monday involving lawsuits filed by Fair Districts groups, including the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause. They want to get to the bottom of what key legislative leaders did during the redistricting process when drawing up the maps — key to two legal challenges involving state Senate districts and congressional districts.

Tallahassee’s Republican leadership is arguing “legislative privilege” applies. So tough luck, voters. Backdoor meetings closed to the public were perfectly dandy.

Yet depositions in a congressional district fight already point to an aide of then-House Speaker Dean Cannon in 2011 releasing some proposed congressional maps to a GOP political consultant for an Orlando-area congresswoman who was facing reelection — a full two weeks before the maps became public for review.

What happened during those two weeks?

Maybe absolutely nothing.

Surely, releasing other exchanges between legislators and political operatives would clear up that mystery and perhaps many others.

Fair Districts’ lawyers say a May deposition of a political consultant shows GOP politics was guiding legislative decisions on redistricting — a violation of the wishes of two-thirds of Florida voters who gave the nod to the constitutional amendment.

The two lawsuits are now stalled until the state’s highest court determines if the Legislature’s behind-the-scenes machinations can be made public. Some consultants have preferred to be in contempt of court and refused to turn over evidence.

Legislators prefer to hide under the veil of “legislative privilege.”

Legislators’ notes, memos and anything else involving political consultants and candidates during the redistricting process should be fair game in court.

A trial judge sided with Fair Districts, but an appeals court overruled.

Now Florida’s justices need to weigh the scales between privilege and the public’s right to know.

After hemming and hawing and blocking requests for emails or documents, then appealing the trial judge’s ruling, lawmakers now argue it’s too late to be asking for records, when the 2014 elections are just a year away.

They hide behind “legislative privilege” while talking up “transparency.”

The only “privilege” our elected leaders should be citing is the opportunity to represent Floridians and gain their trust. So far, they have made a mockery of two-thirds of Florida voters’ wishes.

Follow the Herald Editorial Board on Twitter @heraldoped

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