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Florida Supreme Court rules to close out public, media in redistricting case hearings

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  1. Court Access
The Florida Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday to allow third-party records and email to be admitted as evidence in a…

The Florida Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday to allow third-party records and email to be admitted as evidence in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a congressional redistricting plan, but also held that the materials must be under seal and the courtroom closed when attorneys discuss the materials.

This ruling overturns an appellate court's decision not to let in the records of political consultant Pat Bainter and his consulting firm, Data Targeting, Inc., which Bainter argued contained trade secrets. The League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other democratic voters had wanted to use the documents as evidence in their challenge to the redistricting plan, which they say was created in an illegal manner and unfairly favors Republicans.

The Court explained that closing the courtroom would prevent harm to Bainter and Data Targeting, but left open the possibility of making the records public later.

“[W]e emphasize that this opinion is not a determination that these documents will be permanently under seal or that they are in fact protected by the associational privilege and should be shielded from the public," the Court wrote.

Although she is pleased the records will be included in the trial, Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Florida, said the impact of this case is too far-reaching to deny public access to the materials during the trial.

“To have [a judge’s] opinion without the documents and the ability to understand how that agreement was reached is not only frustrating, but it can undermine public confidence, and it can create more questions than are answered,” Petersen said.

Rachel Fugate, a partner at the Florida-based media law firm Thomas & LoCicero PL, said it is unlikely that media organizations will sue to get immediate access to the courtroom because they have few places to turn now that the Florida Supreme Court made its decision.

“When your highest court in Florida says so, I don’t know where you would go,” Fugate said. “It’s a difficult position that media organizations and the lower court find themselves in right now.”

The First Amendment Foundation was preparing an amicus brief with several Florida media organizations for the appeals court, but the high court reached a decision before they filed it.

Petersen said that Bainter is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the Florida court’s decision to let in the records.