Florida court orders release of secret evidence from redistricting case

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The Florida Supreme Court, in a blunt and highly critical ruling, on Thursday ordered the release of hundreds of pages of emails and documents that could expose the role that Republican consultants played in drawing new congressional districts.

The Gainesville-based team of consultants, whose legal bills were paid by the Republican Party of Florida, have tried to keep the documents secret during an ongoing legal challenge to the state’s congressional map. State legislators were forced to alter that map after a judge ruled this summer two congressional districts were improperly drawn to aid the GOP.

The state’s high court ruled that Pat Bainter and his firm Data Targeting had engaged in “gamesmanship” and had waited until the last moment to assert that releasing the documents would violate their First Amendment rights. The ruling notes that at one point, Bainter had maintained he had no real role in redistricting and that he had an “after the fact interest.”

“We simply do not countenance and will not tolerate actions during litigation that are not forthright and that are designed to obfuscate the discovery process,” wrote Justice Barbara Pariente for the court.

The decision to unseal the records was supported by all seven justices. A spokesman for the court said that the 538 pages of documents would be placed online once the ruling becomes final later this month. Media organizations, including The Associated Press, had asked in a friend of the court brief for the documents to be released.

Lawyers who represented the groups challenging the districts said the records will reveal the “shadow process” they said existed between the consultants and the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature.

“The documents which will now be open to public scrutiny were an integral link in establishing the conspiracy between the legislators and the political operatives to draw maps that would favor the Republican Party,” said attorney David King in a statement.

Bainter and his firm are not directly named in the lawsuit over the congressional map. But his attorneys have fought attempts to force the release of documents related to redistricting. His attorneys maintained that disclosing the documents would reveal trade secrets and violated his right to keep private his political activities. The ruling found the trade secret argument “without merit.” Justices said Bainter had waived his right to assert First Amendment rights because he did not make that argument until after he had been found in “contempt of court” for refusing to turn over the documents.

Voters in 2010 passed the “Fair Districts” amendment that says legislators cannot draw up districts to favor incumbents or a political party, a practice known as gerrymandering. The League of Women Voters of Florida and other groups that sued contended that the congressional map adopted in 2012 violated these new standards.

Judge Terry Lewis in July agreed there was enough evidence to show that consultants helped manipulate the process and ruled that two districts were invalid. Lewis in his ruling cited some of the secret evidence.

The two districts flagged by Lewis were a sprawling district held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown and a central Florida district held by U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican.

Legislators in August adopted a new map that alters seven of the state’s existing 27 districts and shifts nearly 400,000 voters in central and north Florida. But the new map keeps intact to a large degree Brown’s district, which stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando and at one point is no wider than a highway bridge. The groups challenging the maps have maintained that Republicans have packed Brown’s district with Democrats in order to help Republicans in adjoining districts.

Lewis signed off on the new map, but the groups have appealed that decision. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to take up the case next spring.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.