TALLAHASSEE — With state legislators facing lawsuits accusing them of drawing redistricting maps that favor Republicans, a House committee on Thursday passed a bill protecting lawmakers and their staff from having to testify if they get sued.
Proponents said the bill's timing had nothing to do with redistricting, but was a long-overdue attempt to clarify common law amid recent attempts to subpoena legislators in other lawsuits.
But Democrats blasted the late-emerging bill from the House Judiciary Committee as a blatant attempt to undermine the constitutional amendments on redistricting.
"I think timing is telling," said Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando. "What it's telling me is that this is an attempt to shield legislators from depositions in the redistricting process."
Last week, the Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit challenging the Legislature's congressional redistricting maps and raised the prospect that legislators and staff had conversations about drawing favorable districts with Republican congressmen Dan Webster and Mario Diaz Balart, or members of their staffs.
The four-page bill, passed 13-5 with the support of one Democrat, gives "absolute privilege" to current and former legislators and their staffs in any civil action. Lawmakers cannot be compelled to testify or produce documents "in connection with any action taken or function performed in a legislative capacity." The House Rules Committee will take up the bill next week.
"We're seeing more and more people filing litigation,'' seeking legislators to testify in depositions, said Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha. He was referring to recent attempts to subpoena Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, in an online travel case, and Reps. Dennis Baxley and Seth McKeel in a case challenging an election law passed last year.
The redistricting lawsuits rely on two new amendments to the state Constitution that prevent lawmakers from drawing redistricting maps with an intent to favor either an incumbent or a political party. To determine intent, both legislators and their staffs are expected to be called in for questioning about how they drew the maps.
Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday signed the congressional map, officially setting in motion legal challenges from Democrats and a coalition of voters groups that include the League of Women Voters, the National Council of La Raza and Common Cause of Florida.
Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, attempted to amend the bill to exclude redistricting testimony in the immunity protections, but it was defeated. Only Rep. John Julien, D-North Miami Beach, voted with Republicans.
"There isn't any state in the entire nation that has adopted what is being contemplated here,'' Steinberg said. He asked Metz if he could produce a single example of when a legislator has been compelled to testify despite the immunity protections that have existed because of federal law since 1972.
Metz couldn't offer an example. But he said that while 49 other states have similar laws offering legislative immunity, Florida relies only on case law and federal legal protections. Each time a legislator is called to testify, legislative immunity has to be reaffirmed in court.
"This is not a shield but is a defense against gamesmanship and bullying,'' said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.
Rep. Will Weatherford, chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, said he hadn't read the bill but believed it was done after Kriseman was subpoenaed by lawyers for online travel companies who wanted him to conduct a taped deposition. The lawyers said Kriseman distributed confidential company documents during a legislative battle last year.
The House general counsel defended Kriseman against the request, and a judge agreed to strictly limit the testimony.
Kriseman, a lawyer, said last week that he was asked to co-sponsor the bill but, after seeing the language, he would not support it because he concluded the immunity went too far.
"I think they had an opportunity to fix a problem and instead chose to use the opportunity for political purposes and apparently used me as their shield,'' Kriseman said.
The bill also allows a legislator or former legislator to waive his right to immunity, but if a staff member wants to waive his immunity and offer testimony, he must get approval from the House speaker or Senate president.
"It's a gag rule,'' Kriseman said.
Weatherford said that he hasn't seen the bill and wants to "study it more'' to determine if it should be narrowed. Meanwhile, he said he will gladly submit to questioning.
"I'm willing to share with anyone the intent that we had on redistricting because the only intent that we had was to follow the law,'' Weatherford said.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com.