Lawmakers vote to shield themselves from questions

Lawmakers vote to shield themselves from questions

By Aaron Deslatte, Tallahassee Bureau Chief10:48 p.m. EST, February 16, 2012

TALLAHASSEE – A House committee voted Thursday for a bill that would shield legislators and their staffs from ever being required to testify or produce public records when they get sued.

The Republican-controlled Legislature’s proposal to grant itself what’s called “absolute privilege” in any civil suit or legal proceeding emerged for the first time Wednesday, the sixth week of the nine-week lawmaking session and less than one week after the Florida Democratic Party filed a lawsuit challenging its redistricting maps.

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee blasted the last-minute proposal as a blatant attempt to “hide the ball” concerning its redistricting efforts, which are expected to draw additional lawsuits from defenders of the Fair Districts amendments that voters passed in 2010. However, one Democrat on the committee — Rep. John Patrick Julien of North Miami Beach — joined the committee’s dozen Republicans in voting for it.

“I think timing is telling,” said Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat on the panel. “What it’s telling me is that this is an attempt to shield legislators from depositions in the redistricting process.”

Republicans on the panel said the move was necessary because more and more groups – teachers, unions, and others – are filing lawsuits against the Legislature and attempting to compel lawmakers and their staff to testify about the “legislative intent” behind what they’ve passed.

After the bill passed, House Speaker Dean Cannon told reporters the legal protection was putting Florida in sync with other states that shield lawmakers and uphold “the truth that the motives, or opinions or attitudes of an individual legislator … aren’t appropriate for discovery.”

“Legislative bodies don’t act as individuals, they act as a corporate body,” the Winter Park Republican said, adding it was “insulting” to suggest the sudden unveiling was related to redistricting.

Current Florida law allows a limited privilege that protects lawmakers, but it is subject to a case-by-case determination by a judge about whether it should be applied. Two weeks ago, four legislators and two staff members persuaded a U.S. district judge in Tallahassee to quash subpoenas by the U.S. Justice Departmentseeking to ask about the “legislative intent” of controversial voting reforms passed in 2011.

The bill, PCB JDC 12-03, would make that shield a blanket protection no longer subject to judicial interpretation, apply it to former legislators and extend it to legislative records. It would also extend immunity to current and former legislative staff for “duties performed within the scope of his or her employment.”

“We’re seeing more and more people filing litigation and wanting to come in and leap to the level” where depositions and records are requested, said Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, who presented the bill.

“That’s why more and more litigation is happening.”

But Democrats challenged them to prove the move wasn’t a veiled attempt to hide lawmakers from having to explain the “intent” behind their new congressional and legislative maps, offering an amendment to exclude the coming redistricting lawsuits from the new legal privilege. Republicans defeated it.

“Anyone who votes for this bill is thinking they will have something to hide and have to shield themselves,” said Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood.

The bill now goes to the House floor for a vote. So far, there is no companion bill in the Senate.

After the vote, the Florida Democratic Party released a statement calling the bill “the most outrageous and transparent abuse of legislative power in years…”

“One word describes this bill: outrageous,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, part of a coalition that backed the Fair Districts amendments and is expected to file suit against the redistricting maps. “This bill takes the smoke-filled rooms of state government and puts a clear billboard across the door: ‘Citizens May Not Enter.'”

adeslatte@tribune.com or 850-222-5564.