Florida voters made clear three years ago that they want political districts drawn more fairly. But beyond trusting that lawmakers would actually comply, voters had no way to ascertain if that was done. Until now. A Florida Supreme Court ruling has made clear that the Legislature is not above being held to account in court when it comes to how it draws redistricting maps. That's good for democracy.
In a representative democracy, nothing is more basic than the once-a-decade redistricting process when legislative bodies, based on Census numbers, decide political boundaries. How those lines are drawn can determine who can win office or which party will maintain the majority advantage. But in 2010, Florida voters — far more diverse than their elected representatives — made clear they wanted to end the partisan gamesmanship in Tallahassee and amended the state Constitution to specifically say districts cannot be drawn to favor a political party or incumbent, among other constraints.
Two years later, after new lines were drawn, the Florida League of Women Voters and other groups filed suit saying lawmakers failed to follow the new standards and seeking to force legislators to the stand to explain their decisions. Legislative leaders largely shrugged, hiding behind claims of broad legislative privilege.
They can't hide anymore. The state's highest court said that exploring what lawmakers intended in the line-drawing process is an essential part of enforcing the new amendments. The justices did establish for the first time a legislative privilege that shields state lawmakers from being called to testify in a civil court matter for nearly all other types of legislative activities. The court found that a privilege exists even though Florida doesn't explicitly grant one in its Constitution or laws, as nearly all other states do.
But writing for the majority, Justice Barbara Pariente said that such legislative privilege is not absolute. A compelling, competing interest exists in ensuring that the fair district amendments live up to the promise that lawmakers act with nonpartisan and nondiscriminatory intent. The court carved out this exception over the angry and unpersuasive dissent of Justices Charles Canady and Chief Justice Ricky Polston, who would essentially leave it to the Legislature to self-police the redistricting process.
The court noted that Florida's Constitution strongly favors transparency and public access to the legislative process. Telling lawmakers they have to testify under narrow but reasonable circumstances follows that tradition. Days after the decision, news accounts surfaced that lawmakers may have already destroyed many of the documents the plaintiffs seek. But lawmakers will still have to take the stand, and they're on notice going forward that when it comes to redistricting, they can be held to account in a court of law based on standards voters approved.