Battle over depositions in elections law challenge

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Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida: A federal judge will hear arguments Friday about whether four Florida lawmakers and two staff members should be forced to testify in a legal fight about a controversial new elections law.

House, Senate and Department of State lawyers are trying to block depositions sought by the NAACP and other groups opposed to the law, which passed last year. The state contends that members of the Legislature enjoy legal “privilege” against having to provide such testimony.

“We have provided thousands of pages of documents which should provide ample evidence of the Florida Legislature’s intent (in passing the law),” House General Counsel George Levesque wrote in a Jan. 6 letter to an attorney for one of the groups. “Further intrusion by the courts into the legislative sphere would only serve to chill legislative activity and deter legislators from the full and faithful discharge or their duties.”

But attorneys for the law’s opponents argued in a Jan. 13 court document that the testimony is “undeniably relevant” and will focus on issues such as the history and intent of four disputed issues in the elections law. They also argued that state lawmakers don’t enjoy privilege from providing such testimony.

“These legislators and staffers proposed, championed and/or were intimately involved with the enactment of the election law changes at issue,” the document said. “Their testimony is relevant, discoverable and highly probative.”

The lawmakers targeted for depositions are Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who sponsored the elections bill; House State Affairs Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland; Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami; and Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland. The staff members are Heather Williamson, of the House Government Operations Subcommittee and Jonathan Fox, of the Senate Ethics and Elections Subcommittee.

While Baxley, McKeel and Diaz de la Portilla supported the bill, Dockery opposed it.

The dispute is the second ongoing case in which the Legislature is trying to prevent members from being deposed. The House has gone to the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee to try to prevent Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, and an aide from having to testify in a tax lawsuit involving Broward County and the online travel firm Expedia.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle has scheduled a hearing Friday on the depositions of the lawmakers and staff in the elections case. Along with the NAACP, other groups whose lawyers are involved in the case include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

While Hinkle will hear the deposition issue, the case centers on whether a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., will approve parts of last year’s elections law under the Voting Rights Act. Florida must receive what is known as “preclearance” — in effect approval to move forward with the election changes — because of past discrimination in five counties.

The three-judge panel will look at four major issues. They are new requirements on groups that conduct voter-registration drives; new requirements on petition signatures for proposed constitutional amendments; new restrictions on people who try to change their addresses at the polls; and new limits on early voting.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.