Lawmakers enjoy protection from being forced to testify in most civil cases, the Florida Supreme Court ruled late Friday, but that protection does not extend to a challenge to the state's congressional districts working its way through the courts.
The landmark, 5-2 ruling was the first time the justices have recognized a "legislative privilege" in Florida. But it came as something of a pyrrhic victory for lawmakers who were hoping to avoid testifying about the 2012 redistricting process.
Instead, the court found that the need to enforce anti-gerrymandering redistricting standards approved by voters in 2010 outweighed the damage that could be done by forcing lawmakers to testify.
"We therefore reject the Legislature's argument that requiring the testimony of individual legislators and legislative staff members will have a 'chilling effect' among legislators in discussion and participation in the reapportionment process, as this type of 'chilling effect' was the precise purpose of the constitutional amendment outlawing partisan political gerrymandering and improper discriminatory intent," Justice Barbara Pariente wrote for the court.
She was joined by Justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince, Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry. The five justices who backed Friday's opinion often make up the majority when the court is divided.
Pariente's opinion upheld a provision of a ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis that drew a distinction between testimony about lawmakers' "thoughts or impressions" about the maps -- which would still be privileged -- and other testimony, which wouldn't.
In May, the 1st District Court of Appeal threw out Lewis' ruling, saying that it violated legislative privilege, which courts have recognized but has never been before the Supreme Court, and saying that the standard Lewis proposed to use for deciding which testimony would be allowed was unworkable.
The Supreme Court's ruling on Friday dismissed those concerns.
But in a sharply worded dissent, Justice Charles Canady blasted the majority's opinion, saying it was unprecedented.
"In this case, 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. ... Nothing in [the redistricting standards] justifies this evisceration of the constitutional legislative privilege," Canady said.
Canady was joined in the ruling by Chief Justice Ricky Polston; the two of them are frequently more conservative than the other justices.
Spokespersons for the House and Senate said lawyers were still reviewing the ruling Friday afternoon.
In a statement, League of Women Voters of Florida President Deirdre Macnab, whose organization is part of a coalition challenging the maps, hailed the decision.
"The people of Florida should salute today's action by the Florida Supreme Court, which will help guarantee radically reduced shenanigans during the state's redistricting process," Macnab said. "No amount of kicking and screaming by legislators should prevent the will of the people from being followed."