TALLAHASSEE -- A GOP consultant who lost a battle at the Florida Supreme Court to keep documents secret at an ongoing redistricting trial appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Pat Bainter, owner of the Gainesville-based political consulting firm Data Targeting, filed an emergency appeal to the nation’s highest court in a last-ditch attempt to block his testimony Thursday in the trial over the state’s 2012 congressional redistricting maps.
In a lawsuit filed by a coalition of voters groups, Bainter is accused of collaborating with legislators and staff to create a “shadow” redistricting process to benefit Republican incumbents and candidates. The plaintiffs, led by the League of Women Voters and seven Democratic-leaning individuals, say Bainter and his partners helped legislators protect incumbents and Republican candidates in violation of the Fair District amendments to the Florida Constitution.
The state Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Bainter must release 538 pages of emails, maps and planning documents if they are entered as evidence in the case that is now in its seventh day, but the justices allowed him to have the courtroom closed to the public and the media when the documents are discussed.
Bainter, whose legal bills are being paid by the Republican Party of Florida, argues in his appeal that the documents are “protected political speech — internal deliberations and strategy, and the names and contact information for like-minded individuals who wish to remain anonymous.”
He claims that the forced disclosure of what he considers “trade secrets” will have a chilling effect on his First Amendment rights and asks the U.S. Supreme Court to issue an emergency stay “to keep the proverbial cat in the bag” and to preserve Bainter’s ability to later appeal any ruling out of Florida.
Also on Wednesday, Bainter’s attorney, D. Kent Safriet, appeared before Tallahassee Circuit Judge Terry Lewis to ask that the testimony of Bainter and GOP political consultant Rich Heffley wait until next week in order to give the Supreme Court time to rule.
Lewis said no. The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling will hold, the judge said, and Bainter and his documents will be admitted if the plaintiffs can show they are relevant to the case.
“If it’s not relevant, it’s not admitted,”' Lewis told Safriet. “Your interest in not having it admitted is not the same as whether something is relevant or not. If somebody doesn’t object, they obviously think it’s relevant. Whether you think it’s relevant or your client thinks it’s relevant is not the issue.”
Safriet argues that the Florida Supreme Court erred when it reversed an appellate court ruling even before a written opinion had been completed by the First District Court of Appeal. The ruling will force him to disclose confidential information such as “data, analysis, and impressions crucial to [Data Targeting’s] business as political consultants” as well as “grassroots members” and insight into the firm’s direct mail capabilities, he said in the appeal.
Safriet argued that disclosure would harm Bainter's financial interests because competitors could “pick off” clients and cause irreparable harm. He also suggested that Bainter may decide not to answer “questions related to these privileged and confidential materials” and could be held in contempt of court.
The emergency appeal to the nation's highest court continues what has been nearly two years of legal battles over the documents held by Bainter and his firm. His lawyers say that Bainter and his partners, Matt Mitchell and Michael Sheehan should be treated differently than legislators but “are caught in the crossfire through non-party subpoenas and discovery.”
“The Applicants are simply political consultants,” the appeal states. “They align with the Republican Party and conservative causes, and as a result are thus vilified by the Democratic-Respondents.”