TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A bill now moving through the Florida House would allow state lawmakers to wrap themselves in absolute immunity from having to testify in lawsuits.
The House Judiciary Committee cleared a bill (PCB JDC 12-03) along party lines on Thursday that would give a "legislative privilege" to all current and former lawmakers and their staff. If a staff member wanted to cooperate, the lawmaker could block the testimony.
The privilege includes not having to turn over personal notes or other documents produced in their legislative capacity. And the immunity from disclosure extends even after a lawmaker's death.
Democratic critics complained bitterly that the measure really was about protecting Republican motives behind this year's maps for once-a-decade political redistricting.
"Particularly the timing of this speaks to what it's all about," said Rep. Richard Steinberg, a Miami Beach Democrat, who pointed out that a House redistricting lawyer was attending the meeting. "This has everything to do about redistricting."
The Florida Democratic Party already is challenging the Republican-controlled Legislature's new congressional districts as unconstitutional. Three groups that supported the Fair Districts anti-gerrymandering amendments voters adopted in 2010 say they also plan to sue.
Rep. Matt Gaetz said the bill is in response to threats of such lawsuits.
"What this bill does is ensure that litigation is not used as a tool or a bully tactic," the Shalimar Republican said. "Because a specific interest group has a lot of money and can afford litigation, they can drag (lawmakers) into court, disrupt their life, their service to constituents." Gaetz didn't name specific groups.
The League of Women Voters of Florida, one of the likely plaintiffs, points to the Florida Constitution: "No apportionment plan or individual district shall be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent."
"The Legislature's intent is very relevant," said league president Deirdre Macnab. "Yet the decision to move this law forward would make the intent of both current and prior legislators and staff unavailable. If they had private meetings where they directed that maps be drawn in violation of the criteria, the courts and the public might never find out."
Attorneys have tried dragging legislators into court for other cases recently.
Rep. Rick Kriseman, a St. Petersburg Democrat, was subpoenaed to testify in a suit involving online travel companies who claimed he distributed confidential information during a taxing dispute last year. A judge only agreed to narrow what he would be questioned about.
In another case, a federal judge sitting in Tallahassee ruled this month that four GOP lawmakers can't be forced to testify about why they voted for a new Republican-backed elections law that opponents say suppresses voting by Democratic-leaning minorities, young people and the elderly.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle recognized a legislative privilege based on case law, but that would apply only in federal court. The bill applies to state civil courts and administrative actions. Florida is the only state that doesn't have a legislative immunity law on the books.
Members of Congress enjoy legislative immunity from compelled testimony under the "speech or debate" clause of the Constitution.
House Speaker Dean Cannon defended the emergence of the bill so late in the legislative session, saying it's an important separation of powers issue. Also, any attempt to divine legislative intent by interrogating a particular member would be useless, he said.
"Legislative bodies don't act as individuals; they act as a corporate body," Cannon said. He added that "it would be insulting for anyone to suggest" that the bill is connected to redistricting.
But a question asked by Hinkle to the plaintiffs' lawyer in the election-law case hints at another problem with forcing legislators to give evidence that may be against their interest: "You don't really think you're going to get some lawmaker to admit, 'I (voted for) this to minimize the Hispanic vote'?"
AP writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report. Follow James L. Rosica on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jlrosica