Attorneys for a Republican political consultant have turned to the U.S. Supreme Court in their effort to block the release of emails and documents from Florida’s redistricting process.
Lawyers for Pat Bainter and his Gainesville-based firm Data Targeting filed an emergency petition on Thursday to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas asking that the documents remain sealed until at least February.
The documents were cited by a circuit judge as a reason why he ruled this summer the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature violated a state law that says congressional districts cannot be drawn to favor any political party or incumbent. State legislators were forced to hold a special session in August to redraw the districts although the changes won’t take effect until the 2016 elections.
But the emails and documents have remained sealed as lawyers paid by the Republican Party of Florida have asserted that disclosing them would violate First Amendment rights and trade secrets.
The state Supreme Court earlier this month ruled that the documents should be released to the public and chastised the consultants for not raising First Amendment questions until six months after the documents were first requested.
Justices on Thursday reaffirmed that decision, although they said they would agree to keep the 538 pages of documents sealed until Dec. 1 in order for an appeal to be filed.
Justice Barbara Pariente said that time had come to release the information.
“This court has unanimously concluded that the documents and testimony must be unsealed, and the public’s right to view these materials that the trial court relied on in rendering its final judgment has been delayed long enough,” Pariente said in a concurring opinion.
However, in their petition to Thomas asking for an emergency stay, Bainter’s lawyers contended they would be harmed if that happened.
“Absent a stay, documents and testimony that contain the names, contact information and internal deliberations of people with whom the applicants associated to advance shared political values would suddenly be revealed,” states the filing. “Fear of being caught in a litigious dragnet would stifle speech. Loss of anonymity would do the same.”
The filing asks Thomas to keep the documents secret until at least February when an appeal must be filed, or until the legal dispute is finally resolved by the federal courts.
Media organizations, including The Associated Press, had asked in a friend of the court brief to the state Supreme Court 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 Legislature.
Voters in 2010 passed the “Fair Districts” amendment. 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. 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.