Immunity bill for lawmakers abruptly droppedby John Kennedy | February 20th, 2012
Legislation that would have shielded lawmakers from having to testify or turn over public documents in court hearings was abruptly dropped Monday, after drawing criticism from a top senator.
The legislation (HB 7123) cleared the House Judiciary Committee last week under fire from Democrats who charged it was intended to serve as an obstacle in emerging lawsuits over redistricting.
Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, sent a memo to fellow senators Monday saying he didn’t think the measure was necessary. But he also indicated he was worried how the legislation might appear to a court reviewing the Legislature’s work redrawing House, Senate and congressional boundaries.
“Florida’s newly enacted congressional and legislative districts have been subjected to prolonged public scrutiny like never before,” Gaetz wrote. “They likely will be subject to more litigation than ever before…I do not want to chance even an appearance that the Legislature is not fully willing and able to explain our plans to any court of competent jurisdiction.”
Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, whose civil justice subcommittee advanced the proposal (HB 7123), said the immunity bill has nothing to do with redistricting. Instead, Metz said legal protections now granted legislators by courts on a case-by-case basis should be broadened.
He also said it was wrong that legislators could be forced to testify about their “legislative functions and duties.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, went even further, saying immunity is a “defense against gamesmanship and bullying.”
Labor unions have sued legislators over new teacher standards, retirement system payroll contributions and election law changes in the past year. In an attempt to sway a judge or jury, union legal strategy could include making lawmakers testify about their “intent” in approving these laws.
In redistricting, the motives of lawmakers crafting new maps also could prove pivotal. But Metz’ proposal would have kept lawmakers off the witness stand.
House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and Rules Chairman Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral, said Monday — soon after Gaetz’s memo was released — that the House was dropping the immunity proposal this year. Cannon, however, added some criticism to those who had derided the legislation.
“The hysterical reaction we’ve witnessed over the last few days has been ill-informed and politically-motivated,” Cannon said. “Unfortunately, a debate this year on this subject will never be free of partisan rancor, blatant political opportunism, and unrestrained hypocrisy on the part of those who wish to discredit the most open and transparent redistricting process in Florida’s history.”