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A battle continues in a Florida 'legislative privilege' case

Law gavel on a wooden desk, law books background
Rawf8 - stock.adobe.com
Law gavel on a wooden desk, law books background

Arguing that the issue is moot, voting-rights groups on Friday urged an appeals court to reject an attempt by the state House and Senate to shield lawmakers and legislative staff members from testifying in redistricting lawsuits.

Lawyers for the groups filed a 44-page brief at the 1st District Court of Appeal that said they decided in December 2022 not to continue seeking depositions of lawmakers and staff members as part of a constitutional challenge to a congressional redistricting plan passed in spring 2022.

As a result, the groups said an appeal of an October 2022 decision by a Leon County circuit judge that could have led to depositions is moot.

But attorneys for the House and the Senate have continued pursuing the appeal, arguing that a legal concept known as “legislative privilege” bars requiring testimony from lawmakers. Ultimately, the House and Senate want to take the issue to the Florida Supreme Court and to undo a 2013 ruling that allowed such testimony in certain circumstances.

The voting-rights groups’ brief said that “in December 2022, there was no longer a live issue — or even the threat of one — for this (appeals) court to resolve.”

“This appeal is unquestionably moot,” the brief said. “It challenges the circuit court’s October 27, 2022, order allowing appellees (the voting-rights groups) to depose a limited subset of legislators and staff involved in the 2022 congressional redistricting process on a limited number of topics. But those depositions never happened.”

In a March 11 brief, however, attorneys for the House and the Senate argued that the “appeal raises questions of great public importance” and that the 1st District Court of Appeal should send the case to the Florida Supreme Court. The Legislature ultimately wants the Supreme Court to “recede” — essentially reverse course — from the 2013 ruling in a case known as Apportionment IV.

“Apportionment IV erred in rejecting an absolute legislative privilege in civil cases and instead establishing a shapeless, standardless balancing analysis as the purported safeguard of the prerogatives of the legislative branch,” the March brief said. “That error threatens the legislative process with grave consequences and should be overruled.”

A coalition of groups, such as the League of Women Voters of Florida and Equal Ground Education Fund, and individual plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in 2022 challenging the constitutionality of a redistricting plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through the Legislature. They contend the plan violated a 2010 constitutional amendment that set redistricting standards, including a standard that said plans could not “diminish” the ability of minorities to “elect representatives of their choice.”

The 1st District Court of Appeal in December 2023 upheld the constitutionality of the plan, and the groups have appealed to the Supreme Court, where that issue is pending.

But as part of the case, the plaintiffs in 2022 also sought depositions from six current and former lawmakers and five current and former staff members. The Legislature fought the depositions, but Circuit Judge J. Lee Marsh in October 2022 said he would allow the lawmakers and staff members to be questioned, with some limits.

Marsh cited the 2013 Supreme Court precedent.

“The appropriate line in this case is where the doors to the House and Senate meet the outside world,” Marsh wrote. “Accordingly, each legislator and legislative staff member may be questioned regarding any matter already part of the public record and information received from anyone not elected to the Legislature, their direct staff members or the staff of the legislative bodies themselves. They may not be questioned as to information internal to each legislative body that is not already public record (e.g., their thoughts or opinions or those of other legislators.)”

In addition to arguing that the appeal of Marsh’s ruling is moot, lawyers for the voting-rights groups also wrote in Friday’s brief that there is “no absolute legislative privilege in Florida.”

But in the March brief, attorneys for the House and the Senate wrote that historically, “the legislative privilege safeguarded the integrity and independence of the legislative process and assured that fear of personal repercussions would not sway the votes of lawmakers or chill the freedom of speech and action in legislative deliberations.”

The current and former lawmakers involved in the dispute are former House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor; former Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero; former Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach; Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island; Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach; and Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island. Each had a leadership role in the 2022 redistricting process.

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Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida