By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
A legal challenge over whether documents related to the Florida Legislature’s 2012 effort to redraw the state’s congressional districts can be made public is now before the state’s Supreme Court justices. The first hearing on the matter began Friday.
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. Although, the League and others won that case, documents related to case weren’t made public.
At issue are 538 confidential pages — including emails, maps and memos — related to the redistricting effort. GOP political consultants maintain the memos are trade secrets.
This past summer, the First District Court of Appeal ruled the documents should not be released. However, the court later issued an opinion 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 the ongoing legal battle.
During the trial a few months ago when the documents were discussed, the courtroom was sealed off from the public, and the media was asked to leave.
Pat Bainter and his Gainesville-based Data Targeting claim the documents should remain private.
Bainter’s attorneys even asked justices to close today’s hearing, but were turned down.
A coalition of voting groups led by the Florida League of Women Voters wants to have the documents made public and have been joined by state news organizations in making their case to justices.
The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times obtained a rare statement from Bainter issued after the hearing urging the court not to release his company’s documents.
Statement on behalf of Pat Bainter, president and owner of Data Targeting, Inc.
“Today’s Supreme Court hearing is the culmination of a legal assault and press sensationalism as to whether or not I, a private citizen, have the right to petition my government without fear of a political inquisition into my private matters. After today’s hearing, it is clear to me that, as interpreted by the Florida Supreme Court, Amendments 5 & 6 are unconstitutional because they criminalize political speech based upon its content. One only need to read the Amendments to see that even its authors knew they could not stifle a citizen’s free speech when they applied the Amendments only to the Legislature, the Amendment title reading ‘Standards for the Legislature in redistricting.’
“The very institutional integrity of the Florida Supreme Court is at stake in this matter.
“The Democratic Party has poured tens of millions of dollars into this legal assault. The Democrats have manipulated a more than willing legal system to coerce me by legal threat to reveal my private internal political opinions, analysis, expertise and even trade secrets, even though I am neither elected to office nor employed by the Legislature.
“Anonymity is foundational when expressing free speech or petitioning one’s government. When you vote on Election Day, do you not cast your ballot in ‘secret?’ Of course you do, and otherwise, it would suppress voting. When the state Supreme Court decides this matter, will they not be deliberating in ‘secret?’ Why do they need to do so? And, does not the press so often report ‘anonymous sources’ which is to say ‘secret’ sources?
“Fear of personal, political, and even physical reprisals chill the ability of people to speak and associate freely. For this reason, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution recognizes the right to associate anonymously, formulate ideas anonymously and petition government anonymously. Without anonymity, fear would stifle speech, civic indifference would trump civic engagement, the foundations of our representative democracy would erode and our republican form of government could not endure. It is incredibly disappointing that the media refuses to stand up for the First Amendment, particularly in light of the present lethal oppression of free speech rights around the world.
“And, yet, here we are today, the Democratic Party funded legal posse, teamed with a well-funded media team, attempting to obliterate the U.S. Constitution by using legal threat to quell individual citizens from participating in Democracy. I will stand in defiance of these attempts because ending our Democracy is too high a price to pay.”
According to the Post, the League and others are “also appealing the decision by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis which found that only two of the state’s 27 congressional districts were drawn to help Florida Republicans maintain their grip on the state’s delegation in Washington.”
But in his ruling, Lewis said that the interplay between campaign consultants like Bainter and the Republican-led Legislature had made a “mockery” of constitutional standards which bar districts from being drawn to help incumbents or a political party.
While Lewis also declared the entire congressional plan invalid, the Legislature convened in special session in August and redrew seven congressional districts in North and Central Florida.
Even though most matters remain unsettled, the trial was successful in exposing some of the backroom tactics used when the maps were drawn.