By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The fight over whether 538 pages of confidential documents should have been made public during the 12-day redistricting trial continues.
The First District Court of Appeal issued an opinion on Thursday that said the Florida Supreme Court should revisit its earlier ruling and decide if documents belonging to Gainesville-based Data Targeting in the trial should have been released during an ongoing legal battle. The documents included emails, maps and memos related to the state’s redistricting effort in 2012.
The First DCA had earlier ruled that the documents should not be released, but a rare internal motion within the court argued the ruling was incorrect and the matter should be settled by Florida’s Supreme Court.
The Florida League of Women Voters and a group of individuals sued the Florida Legislature alleging lawmakers violated laws created by the 2010 Fair Districts Amendments, which mandates the state draw districts that don’t favor one party over the other.
As part of that legal challenge, the League asked the Florida Supreme Court to overturn a decision made by the First District Court of Appeal siding with Republican political consultants who said their documents are confidential ‘trade secrets’ and should not be entered as evidence in the trial.
A few weeks ago, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in a 5-2 vote that GOP consultants must release documents pertaining to the state’s redistricting effort, but the records would only be discussed when the courtroom is sealed off from the public and the media.
During the trial, which ended several days ago, the public and members of the media were asked to leave the courtroom while the judge and attorneys looked over the documents. But, the First District Court of Appeal wants the Florida Supreme Court to revisit this issue.
The appeals court voted 5-4 that the Florida Supreme Court should ultimately decide whether the Leon County circuit judge assigned to the case was correct when he gave the plaintiffs in the case — a coalition of citizens groups — access to the secret emails, maps and planning documents held by political consultants to Republican legislators.
Now, the Florida Supreme Court will have to decide if it wants to take up the case. If so, the high court could agree with or overturn Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’ initial ruling that the secret documents were admissible in court.
…Thursday’s opinion was a procedural development that both sides had expected. In fact, the circuit court, appeals court and Supreme Court have been bouncing around rulings on the secret documents for weeks.
The four appellate judges who dissented from Thursday’s opinion said they had concerns about process and the merits of the dispute about the evidence. Certifying the matter to the high court isn’t justified because the issue is not one of “great public importance,” as the majority said, but “merely a discovery dispute that happened to arise in an important, high-profile case,” wrote Appellate Judge T. Kent Wetherell.
According to the E.W. Scripps / Tampa Tribune Tallahassee Bureau, the opinion “is rare because it represents a larger panel of judges from the 1st District Court of Appeals overturning an earlier ruling by a three-judge panel from the same court.”
A judge on the First District Court of Appeals filed an internal motion challenging the court’s earlier ruling. He asserted the case was of “exceptional importance” and the earlier ruling was “incorrect.” The motion was granted, allowing a larger panel of judges to consider the issue.
By a 5-4 decision, they overturned the earlier ruling. In the three-page opinion, Judge Philip J. Padovano, said the issue should have been considered by the Florida Supreme Court, but did not offer much detail.
Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis was expected to rule on the redistricting trial by the end of the month, but that could be delayed if the state’s high court takes up the Data Targeting issue.
Overall, it is unclear what ultimate effect this will have on Lewis’ ruling and the case itself. The challenge was already expected to stretch on for a while due to the expectation both sides are ready to appeal depending on the decision reached.