Absolute privilege? Absolutely NOT
OUR OPINION: GOP legislators use backdoor attempt to deny Floridians due process in redistricting matters
BY THE MIAMI HERALD EDITORIAL
Even gullible political optimists will have a hard time with the latest bill approved by the Florida House Judiciary Committee.
The committee voted 13 to 5 Thursday to offer sweeping immunity — “absolute privilege” they call it — to legislators, former legislators and their staffs. Lawmakers are hoping to duck having to produce a document or testify in any civil case that has anything to do with lawmaking.
It’s no coincidence that the rapid-fire anonymously authored legislation materialized out of nowhere after a lawsuit was filed challenging new district maps.
This bill smacks of an effort by some state lawmakers to avoid answering how they came up with strong Republican congressional districts in areas where the number of GOP voters has declined.
Democrats, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and National Council of La Raza are fighting back against Republican districts that were strengthened despite declining numbers. Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that says districts can’t be deliberately carved out to protect an incumbent, and the organizations want to question lawmakers to find out what went on behind the scenes when the maps were drawn.
They deserve answers, but this law would keep them — and Florida voters — in the dark.
Immunity itself is not unprecedented. Florida legislators have long enjoyed federal protections from civil suits. Legislators need to be able to do their jobs without being encumbered by frivolous grievances aimed at impeding government.
Suddenly, some Republicans fear that the federal protection that suited just fine for decades is just not enough. Under this bill, judges would no longer be able to use their discretion to determine when legislators should be ordered to divulge information.
The Florida League of Women Voters says the proposed law “takes the smoke-filled rooms of state government and puts a clear billboard across the door: ‘Citizens May Not Enter.’ ” The league asserts that the bill would create a blanket privilege that would preclude all inquiries, including proper ones.
That’s because this dangerous legislation is too sweeping. Although it offers language saying public records remain public, it also says legislators won’t be obligated to produce any.
Worse still, a subpoenaed staff member — or former staff — would have to ask a legislator permission to testify. Where does that leave potential whistleblowers who witness wrongdoing? Gagged. It also leaves both the public’s right to know and the First Amendment in peril.
Miami Beach Rep. Richard Steinberg tried to amend the bill to exclude redistricting from the wholesale protections. Republicans on the committee blocked that, helping fuel the cynicism that this is a back-room deal to dodge accountability.
Backers could not cite a single instance where a legislator was forced to testify under duress, proving the law is not just overreaching, but also unnecessary.
Redistricting lawsuits are expected. But that doesn’t mean voters do not deserve to know how, for example, the new map managed to give Rep. Mario Diaz Balart 24,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, even though in the last decade, his party’s majority in that district shrank dramatically.
Legislators should be willing to explain that in public and in court. This law simply goes too far.