Florida lawmakers protected in redistricting fight

TALLAHASSEE – A panel of federal judges on Thursday 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’ lawyers to oust Republican leaders, including former Senate Speaker Wilton Simpson and former House Speaker Chris Sprowls, in a lawsuit alleging the redistricting plan intentionally discriminated. to black voters.

The ruling cited a legal concept known as “legislative privilege,” which prevents investigation of the motivations for legislative decisions.

“This is true even where, as in this case, there are allegations of improper or illegal motives,” US District Judge Allen Winsor wrote for the panel.

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

Along with Simpson and Sprowls, the ruling protected Sen. Jennifer Bradley, Republican of Fleming Island; former Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero; Rep. Tyler Sirois, Republican of Merritt Island; Rep. Tom Leek, Republican of Ormond Beach; Rep. Kaylee Tuck, Republican of 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 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution. .

The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection, while the 15th Amendment prohibits denying or restricting voting rights based on race.

The case centers, in part, on a decision to redraw North Florida’s 5th Congressional District, which has previously elected black Democrat Al Lawson.

After DeSantis vetoed an initial redistricting plan, lawmakers approved a map that upended the North Florida district, ultimately leading to white Republicans winning every seat in the region in November.

In a court filing last week, lawyers for the plaintiffs said they wanted to question legislative leaders over a period of about three weeks last spring.

That term began with DeSantis’s veto of the initial plan and ended when lawmakers approved a map DeSantis proposed during a special legislative session.

“The public record contains virtually no explanation of the crucial juncture at which the Legislature, including these lawmakers, who had repeatedly endorsed and defended a congressional redistricting map that preserved minority access, abruptly reversed their position, abdicated their mapping responsibilities to the Governor and ultimately approved a map that destroyed the minority access district they had previously sought to protect,” attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote in the May 19 filing.

“The black box of the special session of the Legislature is in stark contrast to the way 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 the subpoenas for depositions, attorneys for the lawmakers wrote that legislative privilege protects “the legislative process from the harms that result when an unwanted entanglement in civil litigation inhibits lawmakers from the performance of their legislative functions. Most courts have recognized the best interests at stake and diligently protected the legislative process from such harm.”

“The privilege applies even, or especially, in important cases, and where the motives of the legislature are relevant,” the motion says. “The plaintiffs do not have the right to question legislators about their role in enacting Florida’s new congressional districts.”

Unlike most cases, a three-judge panel is hearing the redistricting case.

Along with Winsor, the panel is comprised of US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Adalberto Jordan and US District Judge M. Casey Rodgers.

Thursday’s ruling also protected DeSantis’ general counsel, Ryan Newman, from testifying. He allowed a limited-issue statement from J. Alex Kelly, a DeSantis deputy chief of staff who played a key role in the redistricting process.

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