Redistricting trial: Appeals court reverses course in fight over GOP consultant’s documents

Matt Dixon, (@Mdixon55)

After an internal challenge, an appeals court has reversed an earlier ruling shielding documents from being made public as part of a precedent-setting redistricting trial. (read ruling)

The opinion, issued Thursday, is rare because it represents a larger panel of judges from the 1st District Court of Appeals overturning an earlier ruling by a three-judge panel from the same court.

At issue are more than 500 documents from Gainesville-based GOP consulting firm Data Targeting. Attorneys from the firm, which is not a party to the case, argued that the internal documents contained “trade secrets” and were protected under the First Amendment.

During the two-week redistricting trial, which has concluded, plaintiffs led by the League of Women Voters of Florida charged that congressional maps drawn as part of the 2012 redistricting process were drawn to favor Republicans, which would be at odds with the state constitution.

The trail featured testimony from high-profile lawmakers and state staff for the first time in state history. In a landmark ruling, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that legal protections usually extended to state employees did not apply in this case.

During the trial, plaintiffs pointed to communications from Data Targeting founder Pat Bainter and his staff to make the case that the documents should be submitted as part of the case. The three-judge panel disagreed, and the Florida Supreme Court later ruled the documents could be submitted, but only after the courtroom was closed to the public.

A judge on the First District Court of Appeals filed an internal motion challenging the court’s earlier ruling. He asserted the case was of “exceptional importance” and the earlier ruling was “incorrect.” The motion was granted, allowing a larger panel of judges to consider the issue.

By a 5-4 decision, they overturned the earlier ruling. In the three-page opinion, Judge Philip J. Padovano, said the issue should have been considered by the Florida Supreme Court, but did not offer much detail.

Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis was expected to rule on the redistricting trial by the end of the month, but that could be delayed if the state’s high court takes up the Data Targeting issue.

The four judges on the losing side issued 40-pages of dissent blasting the process. Judge Scott Makar said the internal motion, which prompted what’s termed an “en banc” challenge, provided no benefit.

“Using the en banc process simply to second-guess a panel’s [decision] … has no apparent benefit; delay is the only benefactor,” he wrote.

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