Florida Supreme Court Justices expressed concern Monday about the chilling effect that could result from forcing lawmakers to testify about their intentions. The question must be settled before a suit challenging Florida’s congressional districts can continue.
The justices are weighing whether to uphold a lower court’s ruling that legislative privilege exempts lawmakers from having to testify under oath about their job, including the process of drawing new district boundaries last year.
Justice Peggy Quince, for one, seemed to buy into legislative lawyers’ argument that the threat of putting lawmakers on the witness stand could stifle their ability to make any law.
“I am still concerned though if there should be some limitations on this,” she said. “I could see real problems down the road if we allow just an unlimited deposition of a legislator or a legislative aide.”
Justice Jorge Labarga echoed that concern.
“How would the Legislature function if each legislator was under the belief that anything he or she may say to anyone else may be something that they’re going to have to answer under oath in a deposition or perhaps in court?” he asked.
But Sandy D’Alemberte, the lawyer for the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs, says because the state constitution prohibits drawing districts for political reasons, lawmakers in charge of map drawing should disclose their conversations with partisan consultants.
He says he needs to ask questions like, “What kind of communications took place between you and outside political operatives? Was there a parallel secret process going on at the same time that there was an open apportionment process?”
A trial court judge had originally ruled D’Alemberte could question lawmakers about objective facts but not subjective opinions. But Raoul Cantero, a lawyer for the Florida Senate, says that’s a difficult distinction to make. And he raised the question of whether the testimony of just a few lawmakers could prove anything anyway.
“Why are we going through this exercise anyway if the intent that we’re talking about is the intent of the Legislature as a whole?” Cantero asked.
The suit alleges Florida’s congressional map violates the state’s so-called “fair districts” amendments voters passed in 2010 prohibiting gerrymandering. Plaintiffs say the Republican-controlled Legislature drew the maps to favor Republicans.
A similar suit challenging the state’s Senate map is also making its way through circuit court after the state Supreme Court last week allowed that case to proceed.