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Court rules Legislature must testify in redistricting case

The Florida Supreme Court ruled Friday that members of the state Legislature and their staffers must testify in a lawsuit by the League of Women Voters and other groups. They are trying to prove that Republican lawmakers secretly worked to redraw district lines to favor incumbents in violation of the state Constitution's two "fair districts" amendments.

The 5-2 decision by Justice Barbara Pariente said the court has an obligation to balance constitutional protections of citizens against a legislative privilege or shield from being forced to testify as part of the constitutional principle of separation of powers.

"We conclude that there is no unbending right for legislators and legislative staff members to hide behind a broad assertion of legislative privilege to prevent the discovery of relevant evidence necessary to vindicate the explicit state constitutional prohibition against unconstitutional partisan political gerrymandering and improper discriminatory intent," Pariente wrote. "We therefore reject the Legislature’s argument that requiring the testimony of individual legislators and legislative staff members will have a 'chilling effect' among legislators in discussion and participation in the reapportionment process."

The plaintiffs had sought sworn testimony from Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who was Senate majority leader during the 2012 remapping of districts, as well as at least two legislative staffers.

The case is the League of Women Voters of Florida vs. Florida House of Representatives. Friday's decision quashed a previous ruling by the First District Court of Appeal, which held that legislators have an "absolute" privilege in such cases.

In a blistering dissent, Justice Charles Canady (joined by Chief Justice Ricky Polston) wrote: "For the first time in the recorded history of our Republic, a court has ruled that state legislators are required to submit to interrogation in a civil case concerning their legislative activities." Pariente's majority opinion forcefully rejected what she called Canady's "hyperbolic assertion."

A spokeswoman for Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the Senate was still reviewing the decision and would not have any immediate comment.

-- Steve Bousquet