TALLAHASSEE -- Florida’s Supreme Court justices engaged in a vigorous dialogue with lawyers on Monday as they were asked to rule on a precedent-setting question: Should state lawmakers and their staffs be forced to answer questions and turn over documents about the redistricting process?
The Legislature argues that it has turned over more than 30,000 documents in the legal challenges to the state Senate and congressional maps, and that the separation of powers in the state and federal Constitutions shield them from being subjected to questioning about the legislative decision-making process, known as legislative privilege.
Opponents, led by the League of Women Voters and a group of individual voters, say that the redistricting amendments approved by voters in 2010 trump the claim that legislators cannot be asked why they drew the maps the way they did.
Justices indicated Monday they aren’t too sure either side is completely right.
“What we’re dealing with is a once in 10 years process,’’ said Justice Barbara Pariente, the most vocal of the justices. “It seems to me we need to effectuate the will of the voters,’’
Pariente suggested that the Fair Districts amendments adopted in 2010 provided a “unique” set of circumstances that allow for the limited questioning of legislators, as long as the court makes sure “that a legislator doesn’t get hauled into court every time a bill gets passed.”
But Justice Jorge Labarga raised doubts.
“It seems to me when you have a deposition with a legislator there’s going to be an objection to just about every question,’’ he said. “I just see it as unworkable.”
Voters overwhelmingly approved two Fair Districts amendments in 2010 that forced legislators to abide by a new set of rules when conducting the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative districts based on Census data. Among the rules was a requirement that legislators could not draw the districts with the intent to favor a political party or incumbent to avoid what had become legalized gerrymandering.
The League of Women Voters has joined with other parties in lawsuits claiming that the congressional and Senate maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature violated those rules.
They asked the Leon County circuit court for permission to question legislators and their staff under oath about the maps and demanded emails between lawmakers and their political consultants. The Legislature fought back, arguing that the court has previously rejected efforts to force staff and lawmakers to testify, and that if they change course it will have a chilling effect on the legislative process.
The trial court rejected that argument and allowed for the limited questioning of legislators as long as the testimony related to objective facts. The First District Court of Appeal disagreed, ruling that legislative privilege shields lawmakers and staffers from discovery. The League of Women Voters appealed to the state’s high court.
Former Justice Rauol Cantero, arguing for the Legislature, said that the court can’t compel a legislator to testify because that would violate the separation of powers doctrine in the Constitution and that the restriction should be broadly applied to all communications relating to legislative business.