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The Most Important Lawsuit You Know Nothing About

Whenever an elected Republican or Democrat utters the word “transparent,” voters should grab their torches and pitchforks and march on the Capitol.

An evil, perhaps even “shadowy,” political beast is likely running amok. Transparency and government just don’t mix well.

Take the Florida Legislature’s latest attempt at transparency—the redrawing of the state’s 27 congressional districts in 2012. A monumental, precedent-setting case going on right now in a Tallahassee, Fla., courtroom across from the state Capitol has legal experts sorting through 538 pages of secretive documents, thousands of pages of emails, proposed maps, voter data and depositions. Plus, for the first time in Florida history, sitting lawmakers—the kingpins—have been ordered to testify under oath and explain themselves.

The trial will determine if the Fair Districts amendment under the Florida Constitution—passed overwhelmingly by 63 percent of voters in 2010—were violated by GOP leaders. The historic amendment outlawed the drawing of boundaries that give an advantage to political parties or incumbents. It’s the first time ever that the court finds itself in this new role of looking over lawmakers’ shoulders at the redistricting process because of the constitutional amendment.

The League of Women Voters and a coalition of Democratic-allied voters allege the redistricting process was “conducted in the shadows with the secret involvement of partisan operatives with key decisions being made by a tiny group of legislators and staff behind closed doors” to help Republican candidates.

Specifically, the challengers argue that the map should be thrown out and redrawn by the court mainly because of four districts — those held by Democratic U.S. Rep.’s Corrine Brown of Jacksonville and Kathy Castor of Tampa, and Republican U.S. Rep.’s Dan Webster of Orlando and David Jolly of Pinellas County. They allege Brown’s and Castor’s districts were packed with Democratic voters to give surrounding Republicans a better chance of winning.

Republicans, like Senate President Don Gaetz from Niceville, Fla., who crisscrossed the state for public hearings on redistricting, claim the once-a-decade process was “the most interactive, inclusive redistricting process in the state’s history.”

Gaetz and Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, Fla., repeatedly used the word “transparent” on the stand in the non-jury trial, which began Tuesday, May 20, and is expected to last two weeks.

However, Gaetz did admit to the court that he and Weatherford did not notify the public of private meetings, although he added that “the door was open” and anyone could have walked in. So much for transparency.

A few facts exposed in legal proceedings already:

  • GOP operative Marc Reichelderfer acknowledged meeting with GOP political consultants and high-ranking staff members privately to “brainstorm” about redistricting.
  • Former House Speaker Dean Cannon’s top aide provided Reichelderfer nearly two dozen redistricting maps through an online Dropbox account before the Legislature allowed the public to view them and weigh in.
  • Political operative, Pat Bainter and his Gainesville, Fla., firm Data Targeting, and his attorneys paid by the GOP continue to fight the release of some of the 1,833 pages of secret documents they generated on redistricting.

In the never ending mud-slinging game that goes on between Republicans and Democrats, GOP politicians and lawyers point out that Scott Arceneaux, Florida Democratic Party executive director, acknowledged that Democrats submitted an alternate congressional map—which was never adopted—intended to benefit two of its House members and turn a Republican held seat into a Democratic majority.

In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost 500,000 registered voters, Republicans hold 17 seats to 10 seats for Democrats after 2012 elections that followed the new boundaries. Before redistricting, Republicans held 19 of Florida’s 25 congressional districts. Because of population gains, Florida gained two seats in redistricting.

If the court finds GOP leaders drew lines unconstitutionally, the decision could throw another Florida election into chaos in 2014.

Brown warns her Democrat colleagues about doing her any favors. She represents one of “America’s most gerrymandered congressional districts,” the Washington Post pointed out about her serpentine-like boundaries that stretch from Jacksonville to Orlando. “If we’re not careful, we could lose the gains that we’ve made,” she declared.

Fair districts? Hardly.

We voters have always known, sadly, that our power-mongers are more interested in building and securing their empires. And we thought—no, we prayed—it was all about government transparency and serving our interests above their own narrow mindedness.

Silly us. Hopefully, our justice system won’t let us down, too.

Marcus J. Michles II is founding partner and principal attorney of the Michles & Booth law firm. Michles, who is one of Florida’s top trial attorneys, is a Republican. He is also the founder of Michles Family Freedom Foundation, which provides financial assistance to families of servicemen, law enforcement and first responders killed or seriously injured in the line of duty.

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