A peculiar thing happened in the Florida House the other day. The worst public records bill of the session, making it a crime to disclose the identities of jurors in criminal trials, was gutted by its own sponsor.
The secrecy bill was a bad idea with little justification. Yet it passed the House last year with only one dissenting vote, that of Speaker Peter Wallace, and stood an equal chance of passing this time around.
What happened? Senate President Jim Scott sent strong signals to legislators that he won't tolerate any attacks on the state's public records and open meetings laws on his watch.
Unlike Wallace, who has to contend with a shaky majority, Scott has the power to back up his words. Both leaders have tried to block unfriendly bills, but Scott has been more successful. The House, for example, already has passed bills making the names and addresses of public utility customers secret and closing rabies vaccination records to the public. Neither has passed the Senate. Meanwhile, a bill to make the identities of grand jurors secret has been bottled up in House committees.
Rep. Greg Gay, R-Cape Coral, sponsored the jury secrecy bill and seemed determined to see it through. It ran aground in the Senate last year when its sponsor there had a change of heart. With a new sponsor in the Senate, he had high hopes of passage this year.
But this week he changed the entire thrust of the bill, replacing the shroud of secrecy with a simple, if somewhat alarmist, notice to potential jurors that identifying information about them would be public record. It passed 105-8.
Gay had suggested such a notice as a fallback position before the session began. His intentions are hardly benign. He hopes to literally scare up enough public support to pass his secrecy bill next year. He thinks most jurors don't know that their names and addresses are public record and won't want to serve when told.
Here's what the notice would say, in bold type on all jury summons: "If you are selected to serve on a jury, your name, address and any other identifying information concerning you shall be available to any party requesting such information, including the defendant, under the Florida Public Records Act unless otherwise ordered by the court."
The notice is a little misleading, because it suggests that the defendant has a right to juror information under the public records act. Actually, the U.S. Constitution gives defendants that right, and they wouldn't have lost it even under Gay's original bill. Only the general public would have been left in the dark. While there may be times when juror identities should not be made public, that decision ought to be made by a judge on a case-by-case basis. It is the public nature of jury duty that helps ensure equal justice.
The First Amendment Foundation opposed the juror secrecy bill and would like to see the wording of the notice modified. "I'm not opposed to the idea of letting people know that their names are subject to public disclosure," said Barbara Petersen, the foundation's executive director. "I would prefer it to be a little less alarming."
Attacks on the public's access to records and meetings have been bipartisan in both chambers. A lot can happen in the final week of the session, but so far the Legislature hasn't done as much damage to the concept of open government as expected.
Scott, in particular, deserves credit for standing firm. It's not often a popular position in Tallahassee, where some legislators think the government belongs to them instead of the people, but the public ought to thank him for it.