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Legislative plan to give themselves immunity sparks another redistricting feud

As legislators defend against a lawsuit accusing them of unconstitutionally drawing redistricting maps for Republican advantage, a House committee on Thursday passed a bill protecting lawmakers and their staff from being forced to testify and turn over documents.

Proponents said the timing of the bill had nothing to do with redistricting, but instead was a long-overdue attempt to clarify the law amid recent attempts to subpoena legislators.

“We’re seeing more and more people filing litigation,’’ seeking legislators to testify in depositions, said Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, who presented the bill on behalf of the committee. Seated in the front row were the lawyers for the redistricting committee.

Democrats, however, blasted the late-arriving bill as a blatant attempt to undermine the constitutional amendments on redistricting.

“I think timing is telling,” said Rep. Darren Soto, D- Orlando. “What it’s telling me is that this is an attempt to shield legislators from depositions in the redistricting process.”

Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, offered an amendment to exclude redistricting testimony from the protections but it was defeated on a party line vote.

 “There isn’t any state in the entire nation that has adopted what is being contemplated here,’’ he said.

Last week, the Florida Democratic Party filed the first lawsuit challenging the legislature’s redistricting maps, and raised the prospect that legislators and staff had conversations about drawing favorable districts with Republican Congressmen Dan Webster and Mario Diaz Balart or their staffs.

The four-page bill gives “absolute privilege” in any civil action to current and former legislators and their staff against being compelled to testify or produce documents “in connection with any action taken or function performed in a legislative capacity."

Proponents said that while 49 other states have similar laws offering legislative immunity, Florida relies only on case law and federal legal protections. Each time a legislator is called to testify, the legislative immunity has to be re-litigated.

Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, for example, was subpoenaed by lawyers for online travel companies who wanted him to conduct a taped deposition of about his distribution of what they regard as confidential company documents during a legislative battle last year.

In a letter to his fellow House members, Kriseman wrote: "our institution is under attack.  If a group like the OTC’s could do this to me, any other company, organization or group that did not like the way you, as a legislator, debated an issue on the floor or like how you voted, could attempt to do the same to any of you."

The House general counsel defended Kriseman against the attack, and a judge agreed to strictly limit the testimony, but he is not off the hook.

On Thursday, Kriseman said he had been asked to be a co-sponsor a bill codifying existing legislative immunity after two Republican lawmakers, Reps. Dennis Baxley and Seth McKeel, were subpoenaed in a lawsuit over the elections law passed last year.

“They felt there were some issues because we don’t have a state law and it wasn’t in our Constitution,’’ Kriseman said.

After seeing the language for the first time on Wednesday, Kriseman, a lawyer, said he concluded it goes too far and will not support it.

“I think they had an opportunity to fix a problem and instead choose to use the opportunity for political purposes and apparently used me as their shield,’’ he said.

“The Constitution is very clear when it comes to redistricting the intent is a key party of the Constitution. How do you then say it’s an absolute privilege to not ask questions about intent. I think it violates the Constitution.”

On his Facebook page later Thursday, Kriseman wrote that while he believes the “frivolous and unnecessary legal intrusion can pose a serious threat to the legislative process, I do not support the Republican attempt to shield themselves from the legitimate scrutiny related to redistricting.”