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Lawmakers shielded in redistricting fight

By Jim Saunders

News Service of Florida

May 26, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — A panel of federal judges on May 25 shielded eight current and former legislative leaders from having to testify in a challenge to a congressional redistricting plan that Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through last year.

The panel blocked an attempt by plaintiffs’ attorneys to depose the Republican leaders, including former Senate President Wilton Simpson and former House Speaker Chris Sprowls, in a lawsuit that alleges the redistricting plan intentionally discriminated against Black voters.

The ruling cited a legal concept known as “legislative privilege,” which it said prevents inquiry into motivations for legislative decisions.

“This is true even when — as in this case — there are allegations of improper or unlawful motives,” U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor wrote for the panel.

While saying legislative privilege is not “absolute,” Winsor wrote that the plaintiffs “have not shown that this is the extraordinary case in which legislative privilege must yield to federal interests.”

Along with Simpson and Sprowls, the ruling shielded Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island; former Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero; Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island; Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach; Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid; and Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County. All had leadership roles in the once-a-decade redistricting process.

The lawsuit, filed last year by Common Cause Florida, Fair Districts Now, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and individual plaintiffs, alleges that the redistricting plan violated the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment. The 14th Amendment ensures equal protection, while the 15th Amendment prohibits denying or abridging the right to vote based on race.

The case focuses, in part, on a decision to redraw North Florida’s Congressional District 5, which in the past elected Black Democrat Al Lawson. After DeSantis vetoed an initial redistricting plan, lawmakers approved a map that dramatically changed the North Florida district — ultimately leading in November to white Republicans winning all seats across the region.

In a court document last week, attorneys for the plaintiffs said they wanted to question the legislative leaders about a roughly three-week period last spring. That period started with DeSantis’ veto of the initial plan and ended with lawmakers passing a map that DeSantis proposed during a special legislative session.

“The public record contains virtually no explanation of the crucial juncture where the Legislature, including these legislators, who had repeatedly endorsed and defended a congressional redistricting map that preserved minority access, abruptly reversed their stance, abdicated their mapmaking responsibilities to the governor, and ultimately passed a map that destroyed the minority access district they had previously sought to protect,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in the May 19 document. “The black box of the Legislature’s special session stands in stark contrast to how the Legislature, and legislators, conducted the redistricting process up to that point, which was characterized by open debate and good-faith deliberations based on a shared and clear understanding of the Legislature’s obligations under state and federal law.”

But in a Feb. 1 motion to quash subpoenas for the depositions, attorneys for the lawmakers wrote that legislative privilege protects “the legislative process from the harms that result when unwelcome entanglement in civil litigation inhibits lawmakers in the discharge of legislative duties. Most courts have recognized the higher interests at stake and diligently protected the legislative process from those harms.”

“The privilege applies even — or especially — in important cases, and where the motives of the legislative branch are relevant,” the motion said. “Plaintiffs are not entitled to interrogate legislators regarding their role in the enactment of Florida’s new congressional districts.”

Unlike most cases, a three-judge panel is hearing the redistricting case. Along with Winsor, the panel is made up of 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Adalberto Jordan and U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers.

Thursday’s ruling also shielded DeSantis’ general counsel, Ryan Newman, from testifying. It allowed a deposition on limited topics of J. Alex Kelly, a deputy chief of staff for DeSantis who played a key role in the redistricting process.

Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit is pending in Leon County circuit court that alleges the changes to Congressional District 5 violated a 2010 state constitutional amendment that set standards for redistricting.

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