Florida Supreme Court Makes Exception To Legislative Immunity

, Daily Business Review

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Barbara Pariente

The Florida Supreme Court has declared legislative privilege is not absolute and the League of Women Voters can question legislators and their staff members on how they drew up new districts.

The late Friday opinion is a stunning reversal of a First District Court of Appeal decision that shielded the Legislature from discovery in a lawsuit intended to challenge the 2012 redistricting maps.

Justice Barbara Pariente wrote the majority opinion, which had five votes and two concurring opinions from Justices Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry.

Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented.

The dispute pitted the separation of powers doctrine against a 2010 constitutional amendment that prohibits partisan political gerrymandering and improper discriminatory intent.

"We conclude there is no unbending right for legislators and legislative staff members to hide behind a broad assertion of legislative privilege to prevent the discover of relevant evidence necessary to vindicate the explicit state constitutional prohibition," Pariente said.

Although Pariente recognized that the legislative branch was entitled to exercise privilege in general, she concluded that right is outweighed "by the compelling, competing interest of effectuating the explicit constitutional mandate that prohibits partisan political gerrymandering."

The Legislature argued that requiring testimony of individual legislators and staff will have a chilling effect among them in discussions and participation in the reapportionment process.

However, Pariente said the precise purpose of the constitutional amendment was to create this type of "chilling effect."

In dissent, Canady said: "For the first time in the recorded history of our republic, a court has ruled that state legislators are required to submit to interrogation in a civil case concerning their legislative activities."

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