Phil Lewis: Of laws and sausages: Horrors in the making

Phil Lewis: Of laws and sausages: Horrors in the making

Close monitoring of what goes on in Tallahassee during the annual sessions of the Florida Legislature always brings to mind this quote:

“Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made.”

It often is attributed to Otto von Bismarck, a statesman credited with the unification of Germany in the 1800s.

Bismarck was a pragmatist, so his quote quite likely wasn’t a lament. He was just being real, telling it like it was.

Perhaps he first uttered it when he was prime minister of Prussia in 1863. That’s the year he issued an edict restricting freedom of the press. Leave those pesky press folks to their own devices and they sometimes feel the need to write about sausage production.

That brings us to an email we received late last week from the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee. It was marked “high” importance.

The message was from Barbara Petersen, an attorney who has conducted Sunshine Law workshops here at the Naples Daily News as well as at newspapers throughout the state. She was sounding an alarm.

“Wowsie,” she wrote. “An old friend of mine once told me that when working with the Legislature, I should never be surprised — I could be shocked, amazed, stunned, even appalled, but I should never be surprised. Well, my friend never saw this.”

That was her way of alerting newspaper editors throughout the state that a law was being considered that would grant state senators and representatives — along with their staff members — a special type of immunity that should frighten all advocates of the public’s right to know.

The proposed bill, produced by the House Judiciary Committee, would give lawmakers “absolute privilege” in any civil actions or judicial administrative proceedings. They in effect would not have to testify nor produce any documents if their actions were called into question.

Petersen warned that the proposed law would scuttle the constitutional right of access to legislative records.

“You make a public record request for email correspondence between the speaker (of the House), for example, or the Senate president, and the staff director of a key committee, or a lobbyist, or another legislator. Your request is denied. Your remedy?” she asked. “Hold your breath because if this bill passes, there is no remedy.”

“That’s right,” Peterson said. “There is no remedy because our legislators and their staff would have absolute privilege and could not be forced even by a court of law to produce the public records you requested.”

She added that since the bill was coming out of a committee there wasn’t any single elected official to hold accountable for “this wrong-headed” piece of legislation. She also noted that the bill would protect legislators even after they die, because the privilege remains “in perpetuity.” That’s some serious immunity.

The genesis of the bill seems to be the expectation that members of the Florida Legislature will face a wide range of lawsuits challenging the redistricting process — the once-a-decade redrawing of voting boundaries. Some believe that certain district lines were drawn to protect incumbents and those believers likely will want to subpoena a lawmaker or two, plus any supporting documents.

The proposed bill would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to see how the redistricting sausage was made.

And, to Petersen’s point, it would pretty much keep secret all the sausage recipes.

Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His email address is plewis@naplesnews.com.