TALLAHASSEE -- With a trial looming over Florida's redistricting process, a Leon County circuit judge on Thursday ordered lawyers for some Republican political operatives and a coalition of voting-rights groups to speed up their review of thousands of pages of internal documents.
The legal battle threatening to stretch well into the 2014 elections is over the Fair Districts constitutional amendments voters adopted three years ago that spell out that lawmakers can't re-draw legislative and congressional maps to intentionally favor a political party or incumbent.
A coalition of groups that backed the amendments, including the Florida League of Women Voters and Common Cause, argue that lawmakers did in fact draw the congressional and state Senate maps to favor Republican candidates. They are pressing two lawsuits and have been trying for more than a year to pry more pages of emails, data and testimony from the party consultants, legislators and staff.
Last year, they also went after third-party records held by GOP consultants, including Gainesville-based Data Targeting Inc., which was paid more than $4 million last election cycle by Republican clients.
But the company has so far fought the release of more than 1,800 pages of documents it claims are trade secrets, not relevant to the case, or otherwise protected by their constitutional right to associate and redress grievances with government.
The Fair Districts groups say they need the records to shed more light on what really happened when the GOP-controlled Legislature re-drew the maps last year.
"We're running into brick walls trying to get this information from other sources," Fair Districts lawyer Adam Schachter told Judge Terry Lewis. They [the consultants] "were in the dark rooms; they were part of the process."
The political firm and its owner, Pat Bainter, have already been held in contempt for not turning over the records sooner.
In June, Lewis ordered both sides to sit down with a special magistrate to review the records and determine which ones were relevant to the case and should be released.
That hasn't happened, and a lawyer for Data Targeting told Lewis that wsa because the Fair Districts groups had objected to the magistrate's review process.
So Lewis on Thursday gave the sides two weeks to work out their differences. Schachter had asked the judge to again find the consultants in contempt of court and order the immediate release of the records, but Lewis refused.
Some records have already shown that political consultants met with House and Senate redistricting staffers before the maps were drawn. And an aide to former House Speaker Dean Cannon released congressional maps to a Republican operative two weeks before they were made public.
In one email exchange, Cannon, R-Winter Park, asks if the Senate is willing to address concerns that the House and the GOP operative had with it -- which the plaintiffs argue was evidence of GOP consultants steering the map design.
The records -- a May deposition of GOP political consultant Marc Reichelderfer and emails he received from Cannon aide Kirk Pepper in late 2011 -- are being used by Fair Districts supporters to document their charges of GOP favoritism.
Conversely, records handed over to the Legislature by the Fair Districts groups included exchanges with their consultants discussing ways to design more Democratic-performing districts as well as protecting the congressional seat of Democratic National Committeewoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston.
The trial over the maps is likely to begin sometime in December or January.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun