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Fed judge won't compel lawmakers to testify

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A federal judge on Friday ruled that four senators and two staff members do not have to testify as part of lawsuit challenging a new Florida election law that opponents say makes it more difficult for some voters to cast ballots.

Following more than an hour of arguments, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle denied a motion filed on behalf of the League of Women voters and others asking that two Senators, two House members and two legislative staffers be required to give depositions and turn over notes regarding their decisions leading to the passage of legislation last year that made changes the group says are discriminatory.

Ruling from the bench after a brief intermission, Hinkle said common law and long-standing precedent give state lawmakers and their staff members a qualified privilege not to disclose the reasons for their actions relating to legislation.

Though not an absolute privilege, Hinkle said plaintiffs -- which also included the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic voter advocacy group --failed to make their case that the circumstances surrounding the request were so extraordinary that the court should overlook precedent that grants lawmakers wide latitude to keep their motivations private.

?The existence of a privilege is honored, in many cases, as a matter of course," Hinkle said "... It is derived from the chilling effect it would have (on the legislative branch.)"

The lawmakers targeted for depositions were Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who sponsored the elections bill; House State Affairs Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland; Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami; and Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, all of whom remain sitting legislators. The staff members are Heather Williamson, of the House Government Operations Subcommittee and Jonathan Fox, of the Senate Ethics and Elections Subcommittee.

Baxley, McKeel and Diaz de la Portilla supported the bill, while Dockery did not.

Hinkle's decision Friday affects a related case in Washington D.C. where a three-judge panel will rule on parts of last year's elections bill, HB 1355, under the Voting Rights Act. Florida must receive what is known as "preclearance" --- in effect approval to move forward with the election changes --- because of past discrimination in five counties.

The three-judge panel in D.C. will look at four major issues: New requirements on groups that conduct voter-registration drives; new requirements on petition signatures for proposed constitutional amendments; new restrictions on people who try to change their addresses at the polls; and new limits on early voting.

As part of that case, the group subpoenaed the Florida lawmakers, and they challenged the depositions in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

An attorney for the federal government told Hinkle Friday the Florida lawmakers' testimony is needed to flesh out other evidence that is being gathered for the case.

"The documents themselves don't speak for themselves," said Elise Shore, an attorney for the Department of Justice.

Following Hinkle's ruling, Daniel O'Connor, an attorney representing the League of Women Voters and La Raza in the case, said he would consult with his clients to determine if they will appeal Hinkle's ruling to the 11th Circuit court of Appeals in Atlanta.