TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge ruled Friday that four state legislators and two staffers cannot be forced to testify in a case that challenges changes to Florida election laws.
After more than 90 minutes of arguments, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle rejected a request by the League of Women Voters of Florida and the National Council of La Raza, who were supported by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Hinkle said the lawmakers and staffs are protected by a long-standing common-law privilege dating back centuries, as well as later court decisions that said such questioning would be an unwarranted intrusion of the legislative branch.
"People recognize, without even thinking about it, that there is this privilege," Hinkle said. "The balance here favors the legislators."
The lawmakers are Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, and Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the sponsors of the election bill (HB 1355) that passed in 2011, and Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, and Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who voted against it.
The two voter advocacy groups say the Republican-backed changes are part of a strategy to make it harder for some people to vote.
They have entered a case now before a panel of three federal judges in Washington, who must approve controversial changes to the state law before they take effect in five counties: Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry. The process is known as preclearance.
The changes involve fewer days of early voting, new registration and reporting demands on third-party voter registration groups and an expansion of use of provisional ballots.
Their attorney, Daniel O'Connor, said the reasons behind the changes are still not entirely clear, and that lawmakers should be forced to explain why they made them.
Justice Department attorney Elise Shore said her agency routinely interviews state lawmakers in preclearance cases. "They are highly relevant to the case," Shore told the judge.
Hinkle agreed their testimony would be relevant, but he was unmoved. "The suggestion that there is no legislative privilege (against testifying) just does not stack up," Hinkle said.