TALLAHASSEE — The latest fight over the state's congressional redistricting map came before a Tallahassee appeals court Tuesday as lawyers for the state argued that legislators and their political consultants should not have to testify about how they made their decisions.
The congressional maps became law last year, but are now under fire from seven residents from Key West to St. Petersburg and from a coalition of voters groups who allege that lawmakers drew the maps "with the intent to favor the Republican Party and incumbents" in violation of the state Constitution.
Last month, Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis ruled that the Legislature's leaders must turn over their emails from political consultants and testify under oath as part of the lawsuit.
Before that could happen, however, lawyers for the House and Senate filed an appeal. On Tuesday, they argued that requiring lawmakers to give hours of depositions about their intent would violate their "legislative privilege" under Florida law and subject them to legal intimidation.
"It will be the first time in the history of the state a party will be allowed to compel a legislator to testify in deposition about the core functions he engaged in the legislative process," said Raoul Cantero, a former Supreme Court justice who is representing the Senate.
In 2010, voters approved the Fair Districts constitutional amendments, which required lawmakers to draw restricting lines without favoring incumbents or political parties. Voters groups have latched onto the two amendments as grounds to sue the Legislature, alleging that both the congressional and state Senate maps were intentionally drawn to favor Republicans.
Lawyers for the voters groups, representing the seven citizens as well as the Florida League of Women Voters and the National Council of La Raza, argued that if they can't depose legislators to determine whether they purposely drew maps that favored Republicans, the court would "render meaningless" the constitutional amendments.
John Devaney, a lawyer for the voters group, said if the plaintiffs weren't allowed to question legislators, it would be impossible to prove their intent.
"If you do that, you really take the guts out of the Fair Districts amendments," he said.
Judge T. Kent Wetherell II, whose father was House speaker during a contentious redistricting fight in 1992, suggested that the plaintiffs were asking the court "to go down a slippery slope." Since a majority of legislators voted on the maps, he said deposing a small number was a useless exercise.
"You aren't going to know the intent from talking to one person," Wetherell said. "So other than just the sport of it, what's the point?"
Adam Schachter, another lawyer for the voters groups, said "we will never line up 61 legislators and ask them hours and hours of questions. But there has to be some ability to breathe life into these amendments to see if there in fact was something inappropriate."