The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature has conceded in new court filings that it has discarded records related to the once-a-decade process of drawing new districts.
House Speaker Will Weatherford insisted there was nothing sinister about the move, saying that the Legislature merely followed existing rules that allow for records to be discarded if they are no longer needed.
But the revelation drew swift criticism from groups that are challenging the new districts in court and have been seeking additional records about why legislators drew the districts in certain ways.
League of Women Voters of Florida President Deirdre Macnab said she was in "almost disbelief" that documents were discarded.
"To learn they have destroyed important records is extremely disappointing," Macnab said.
In its latest court filings, attorneys for the Legislature said records related to redistricting were "sometimes, and appropriately, discarded" as allowed under existing rules. The filing also says that lawyers are unsure about which documents may have been thrown away.
Florida has a broad open records law, but the Legislature has the power to set its own rules regarding the retention of public records.
Weatherford in a statement said that "any accusation" that the House "thwarted the law and destroyed documents is completely false."
"We not only complied with the letter and the spirit of the public record laws and longstanding House rules, but also went above and beyond those standards when it came to redistricting," he said. "The opponents in this lawsuit have received thousands and thousands of documents. They should know better."
Every 10 years, lawmakers redraw legislative and congressional districts based on new population figures. Voters in 2010 mandated that legislators draw districts based on existing geographic and political boundaries and not in an effort to help incumbents or a member of a specific political party.
After the "Fair Districts" amendments, legislators adopted maps that led to the election of more Democrats. But critics contend the final districts still do not accurately reflect Florida's political divide.
Lawsuits have been filed challenging congressional and state Senate districts. As part of the legal battle those suing have asked for records and the ability to force legislators and legislative staff to testify. The state Supreme Court ruled last week that legislators can be forced to testify in the lawsuit, setting aside a longstanding privilege that legislators usually enjoy.
The lawsuit has already turned up documents showing top GOP officials met in late 2010 to brainstorm redistricting with political consultants and legislative staffers.
Legislative lawyers, meanwhile, have unearthed emails showing that "Fair Districts" backers worked on a map submitted as part of one lawsuit where the "underlying goal" was to increase "safe Democratic seats" and the number of "competitive seats."
Republicans hold a 26-14 advantage in the Florida Senate, a 76-44 edge in the state House and a 17-10 advantage in the state's congressional delegation even though there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state and President Barack Obama carried the state.