A judge is weighing a request to shield Florida lawmakers and the DeSantis administration in a congressional redistricting case

Florida redistricting
Redrawn Congressional districts proposed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in April, 2022.

By Jim Saunders ©2022 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A Leon County circuit judge Thursday heard arguments in disputes about whether state lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration should be shielded from providing testimony and information to groups challenging a congressional redistricting plan.

Judge J. Lee Marsh did not immediately rule after asking numerous questions of attorneys for the Senate, the House, the DeSantis administration and the plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the plan.

The House and Senate are seeking a protective order to prevent depositions of six key lawmakers and five current and former staff members. The DeSantis administration is trying to block release of a wide range of documents sought by the plaintiffs and to prevent a deposition of J. Alex Kelly, a deputy of chief of staff to the governor who helped steer the plan through the Legislature during an April special session.

The plaintiffs contend the plan, which is expected to add as many as four Republicans to the state’s congressional delegation, violates a “Fair Districts” constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2010 to set guidelines for redistricting. The case also focuses heavily on how to apply a Florida Supreme Court ruling from litigation after the 2012 redistricting process.

Attorneys for the Senate and House on Thursday argued that lawmakers should be shielded from depositions by the legal concept of legislative privilege and what is known as the “apex doctrine.” That doctrine generally prevents depositions of high-ranking officials if information can be obtained in other ways.

“We believe every legislator is a high-level government officer within the meaning of the (apex doctrine) rule,” Senate attorney Daniel Nordby told Marsh.

But plaintiffs’ attorney Christina Ford pointed to the basic definition of an apex, which is a high point, and disputed that the doctrine would apply to all 40 senators and 120 House members.

“An apex is not 160 people, plus some of their staff,” she said.

Marsh indicated that he could see the doctrine applying to House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and chairmen of legislative committees. But he questioned why it would apply to Senate Reapportionment Chairman Ray Rodrigues, an Estero Republican who sponsored the congressional redistricting bill.

“This is the senator that introduced the legislation,” Marsh said.

The DeSantis administration argues it is shielded by legislative and executive privilege, along with the apex doctrine — arguments that the plaintiffs dispute.

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the congressional redistricting plan after it was proposed by DeSantis. Opponents, including groups such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, filed the lawsuit in April, alleging that the plan violates the Fair Districts amendment.

The case focuses heavily on Congressional District 5, which in recent years stretched from Jacksonville to west of Tallahassee and elected U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat. The plan put District 5 in the Jacksonville area and diminished the chances that it will elect a black candidate. Lawson this year is running in another North Florida district against Republican U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn.

Along with Sprowls and Rodrigues, the plaintiffs are seeking testimony from Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican who is a top lieutenant to Senate President Wilton Simpson; Senate Congressional Reapportionment Chairwoman Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island; House Redistricting Chairman Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach; and House Congressional Redistricting Chairman Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island. Also, they want depositions of current and former legislative staff members including House Chief of Staff Mat Bahl.

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