TALLAHASSEE — The trial challenging Florida's newly drawn congressional map ended two weeks ago and the judge could rule at any time on whether the revised boundaries violate the law.
Even so, a 1st District Court of Appeal opinion issued Thursday could jeopardize the use of 538 pages of confidential documents that were introduced as evidence.
The appeals court voted 5-4 that the Florida Supreme Court should ultimately decide whether the Leon County circuit judge assigned to the case was correct when he gave the plaintiffs in the case — a coalition of citizens groups — access to the secret emails, maps and planning documents held by political consultants to Republican legislators.
Now, the Florida Supreme Court will have to decide if it wants to take up the case. If so, the high court could agree with or overturn Circuit Judge Terry Lewis' initial ruling that the secret documents were admissible in court.
It is unclear how much these documents are affecting the larger case. Mark Herron, a lawyer for the coalition that includes the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the dispute about this evidence is just one aspect of the case. The Republican Party of Florida declined comment.
The citizen groups have asked Lewis to invalidate the congressional map the Legislature approved in 2012.
Thursday's opinion was a procedural development that both sides had expected. In fact, the circuit court, appeals court and Supreme Court have been bouncing around rulings on the secret documents for weeks.
The four appellate judges who dissented from Thursday's opinion said they had concerns about process and the merits of the dispute about the evidence. Certifying the matter to the high court isn't justified because the issue is not one of "great public importance," as the majority said, but "merely a discovery dispute that happened to arise in an important, high-profile case," wrote Appellate Judge T. Kent Wetherell.
Herron thinks the dispute about evidence, which pits political consulting firm Data Targeting and its owner, Pat Bainter, against the citizen groups, isn't the only matter that will eventually wind up in the state's highest court.
"This opinion on the Bainter documents and the issue of the merits of the trial that went for two weeks with Judge Lewis will eventually all be before the Florida Supreme Court," he said.
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