A landmark trial over whether Florida legislators broke the law and used a "shadow" process when drawing up new political maps for Congress was held behind closed doors for several hours Thursday.
Circuit Judge Terry Lewis removed members of the public and the media from the courtroom during the eighth day of the ongoing trial. They were allowed to return only after two witnesses had finished testifying.
Lewis said before the trial that he did not want to close the courtroom during the legal challenge to Florida's congressional districts being brought by a coalition of groups including the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and a group of voters.
But he was forced to do so after the Florida Supreme Court ruled this week that up to 538 pages of evidence —which includes emails and maps — must not be disclosed in open court.
The Supreme Court took that step after an appeals court had previously blocked the use of the evidence entirely.
Lawyers representing Data Targeting, a Gainesville-based political consulting firm, and its employees contend that revealing the documents violates their First Amendment rights and also includes trade secrets.
The attorneys, whose fees are being paid by the Republican Party of Florida, tried to get U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to block the evidence. But Thomas had not acted by the time the courtroom was closed.
Several news organizations, including The Associated Press, publicly objected to the closing which occurred during the questioning of Republican consultant Rich Heffley. The courtroom also remained closed when Pat Bainter, a top employee at Data Targeting, took the stand.
The documents are considered key evidence of whether legislators violated the "Fair Districts" amendments which said districts cannot be drawn in a way to favor incumbents or members of a political party. The lawsuit marks the first time those new standards adopted by voters in 2010 are being used to challenge the Legislature.
While legislators have denied any wrongdoing, attorneys for the groups have argued that legislators used a "shadow" process that relied on consultants in an effort to bypass the constitutional amendment. Attorneys for some of those suing are being paid by the National Democratic Redistricting Trust.
Evidence so far has shown that one GOP consultant received maps before they were made public. A Republican Party official testified Friday that congressional maps he drew and turned over to a GOP consultant were identical to those submitted to the Legislature back in 2012 by Alex Posada.
But in a new twist on Thursday, attorneys revealed that Posada, a former Florida State University student and member of that school's College Republicans, had denied in a new deposition that he ever submitted a map to the Legislature.
David King, one of the attorneys in the case, grilled Heffley over whether he created fake email accounts and submitted maps to the Legislature under someone else's name.
"I won't tell you what my mom told me about assuming things but I will tell you that I don't know Mr. Posada, I have never had anything to do with submitting maps and I don't know how they got in the public domain," said Heffley, who was getting paid $15,000 a month by the Republican Party to help with redistricting and state Senate campaigns.
Attorneys for the Legislature tried to dismiss the case on Thursday, but their motion was blocked by the judge. The trial is expected to continue into next week.