TALLAHASSEE — In a major blow to the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature, a judge has ruled that legislators and legislative staff may have to answer questions about a contentious lawsuit over new congressional districts.
If the ruling stands, lawmakers could be forced to shed light on the reasons they crafted a new map for Florida's 27 congressional seats. A lawsuit filed by Democrats and a coalition of groups contends that legislators violated new standards for those maps that voters adopted two years ago.
Attorneys for the Florida Legislature argued legislators and legislative employees have a long-standing privilege held up by other courts that protects them from having to testify about legislative business.
But in a complicated decision, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis this month stated that there is a reason to allow some questioning since it involves the "essential right of our citizens to have a fair opportunity to select those who will represent them."
"Frankly, if the compelling government interest in this case does not justify some relaxing of the legislative privilege, then there's probably no other civil case which would," wrote Lewis in his Oct. 3 ruling.
Lewis, however, put some limits on the questions that could be asked of legislators and said that he did not want attorneys to ask what he called "subjective" questions that were based on someone's opinion and not facts.
The House and Senate plan to appeal the ruling. Lawyers for the Legislature have already asked the judge to block any depositions while the appeal moves ahead.
"The depositions would interfere with the core functions of a coordinate branch of government and are calculated to chill the freedom of action and deliberation within the legislative branch," states a court brief filed Monday.
State lawmakers are required to draw new districts every 10 years following the U.S. Census.
Voters in 2010 passed the "Fair Districts" constitutional amendments that said legislators could not draw up new congressional or legislative districts that were intended to protect incumbents or a member of a particular political party.
But the Florida Democratic Party and a coalition of three groups — the League of Women Voters of Florida, National Council of La Raza and Florida Common Cause — contend the map passed for Florida's congressional districts violates those new standards.
Over the summer, the groups sought to interview Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and some legislative staff about the maps. Legislative leaders fought the request and wound up arguing about the issue in front of Lewis last month.
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