TALLAHASSEE -- Political consultants for Florida's Republican legislators mounted a last-minute attempt Thursday to keep key emails, maps and planning documents out of a court case that is scheduled to begin next week over the state’s congressional districts.
The appeal to the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee comes after a circuit court judge ruled last week and again Thursday that several documents considered confidential “trade secrets” by political consultant, Data Targeting and its owner Pat Bainter, should become public if they are used in court by lawyers.
The high-profile legal scramble comes just days before a two-week redistricting trial is scheduled to begin in the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County. The League of Women voters and seven Florida voters are suing the state for violating the state law that prohibits legislators from protecting political parties and incumbents when redistricting the state.
They told the court they plan to use the documents to argue that Bainter and his staff partners, Matt Mitchell and Michael Sheehan, “surreptitiously participated in the process of preparing the 2012 Congressional Plan,” which they contend unfairly benefits incumbents.
The lawyers for Bainter, who are paid by the Republican Party of Florida, want the First DCA to order Lewis to halt proceedings in the trial while it appeals Lewis' decision not to close the courtroom when witnesses are examined about their documents. Lawyers for the House and Senate have filed a petition with the court saying they have not taken a position on the issue.
The parties have been fighting for more than a year over whether the emails between legislators, staff and the political consultants should be kept secret. Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis last fall appointed a special master, Major Harding, a former Florida Supreme Court justice, to review 1,833 pages of documents. He concluded the documents could remain secret but Lewis conducted a separate review and decided that 538 of them were relevant to the case and should be disclosed.
Bainter’s lawyers then asked Lewis to clear the courtroom if the documents are introduced during trial, claiming the release of the proprietary documents would result in irreparable harm.
"... disclosure of the lists of people with whom the Non-Parties [Bainter and partners] associate – their names, contact information, and sometimes controversial views – would tear at the very fabric of the First Amendment that views '[a]nonymity [as] a shield from the tyranny of the majority,'" Bainter’s lawyers wrote. Download Bainter et al May 15 appeal
Lewis also rejected those arguments and refused to order the courtroom be cleared, prompting Bainter's lawyers to appeal to the First DCA.
The First DCA gave the coaltion's lawyers until 5 p.m. to respond to the request to stay Lewis' order. The coalition asked the court to reject the appeal and noted that Bainter’s lawyers failed to include any of the documents did not describe them for the court.
“These documents are not subject to First Amendment protection and certainly do not constitute trade secrets,’’ lawyers for the citizens coalition argued. Download Plaintiffs response to show cause
They said they will show the court that the Republican consultants "were involved in coordinated efforts to undermine the public redistricting process and thereby influence the 2012 Congressional Plan." They alleged that "legislators and staffers collaborated with Petitioners [Bainter] and other partisan operatives to conduct a separate redistricting process that was not only apart from the public process – but actually perverted the public process itself.”
The May 19 trial is schedule to last two weeks and two days and include the testimony of the state’s top Republicans and their closest advisors, from Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford to dozens of members of the lobbying and political consultancy industry in Tallahassee.