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With Senate redistricting lawsuit pending, court releases disputed documents

The Florida Supreme Court on Monday thrust into the limelight yet another secret email that reveals the role of political consultants in the redistricting process that could have bearing on the pending lawsuit over Senate redistricting.

Tom Hofeller, of the Republican National Committee, wrote to Rich Heffley, a consultant to the Republican Party of Florida, which appeared to underscore the consultants' role in the redistricting process.

“Congratulations on guiding the Senate through the thicket," Hofeller wrote on April 27, 2012 after the Florida Supreme Court approved the disputed Senate maps. “Looks as if, so far, the Democrats have not realized the gains they think were [sic] going to get. Tom."

While the email won’t effect the congressional districts, which the Legislature revised and the courts have upheld, it could play a role in the pending lawsuit over Senate redistricting.

Heffley responded: “Thanks. Big win.” He then correctly predicted the Senate composition after the 2012 elections: “Worse case minus 2. 26-14.”

Lawyers for the voters groups obtained the email as the result of a subpoena in the now-completed lawsuit over congressional districts, in which they alleged that Republican political consultants conducted a "shadow" process to manipulate the redistricting maps in violation of the FairDistrict amendments to the Florida Constitution.

But they were unable to get the email into the record in the congressional redistricting lawsuit after attorneys for the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee argued that its release would violate their First Amendment right to associate.

Several hearings and rulings later, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia ruled on June 3 – a day before the end of the redistricting trial – that the document should be released. 

The emails “arguably support plaintiff’s main contention in the underlying litigation, that Mr. Heffley made ‘efforts’ on behalf of the respondents and other Republicans to improperly influence the redistricting process,’’ the court concluded.

Although there may be a “benign interpretation of the email,” the court said, it also could directly support the plaintiff’s allegations and should be released because it could “tip the balancing test heavily in favor of disclosure.” 

In Tallahassee, Leon Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis didn’t get word of the D.C. ruling until June 9 -- five days after the redistricting trial had concluded.

By that point, he said, it was too late. Lewis concluded he had no authority to have the case re-opened and added to the record and he ordered the document remain sealed.

After the Florida Supreme Court in November ordered the release of 538 pages of documents from other political consultants that also had been kept under seal, the plaintiffs asked the court to unseal the Heffley memo as well.

They argued the evidence was highly relevant “because it demonstrates that the Legislature colluded with both the national and state Republican Parties so that partisan consultants could secretly ‘guide’ the Legislature through the ‘thicket’ of the FairDistricts Amendments’ prohibitions to achieve a prohibited partisan result.’

The plaintiffs acknowledged that Heffley and Hofeller were discussing state Senate districts but asked the court to include it in the congressional redistricting case because, they argued, it was “strong evidence that the same collusion occurred with the congressional redistricting plan.”