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Court shields lawmakers in a legal battle about the 'Stop WOKE Act'

Red wood table and red chair in the justice court
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A federal appeals court has shielded 14 current and former Florida lawmakers from having to turn over documents in a legal battle about a 2022 state law that Gov. Ron DeSantis dubbed the "Stop WOKE Act."

A federal appeals court has shielded 14 current and former Florida lawmakers from having to turn over documents in a legal battle about a 2022 state law that Gov. Ron DeSantis dubbed the "Stop WOKE Act."

A federal appeals court has shielded 14 current and former Florida lawmakers from having to turn over documents in a legal battle about a 2022 state law that Gov. Ron DeSantis dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act.”

In a 2-1 decision Monday, a panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker and ordered that subpoenas for the documents be quashed.

The appeal involved whether what is known as “legislative privilege” should shield lawmakers from having to turn over information to attorneys challenging the constitutionality of the law.

Walker in February ruled that legislative privilege shielded documents such as lawmakers’ communications “with their staff, other members of the Florida Legislature and their staff, and third parties regarding their motivations and mental impressions concerning the formulation” of the law.

But he ordered that the lawmakers should provide certain “factually based information” to the plaintiffs. He wrote that “purely factual documents, including bill drafts, bill analyses, white papers, studies, and news reports provided by or to the legislators and their staff members, do not fall within the scope of this privilege.”

In Monday’s majority opinion, however, appeals-court Chief Judge William Pryor wrote that it was an “erroneous decision” that legislative privilege does not protect factual documents. Pryor, joined by Judge L. Scott Coogler, wrote that the subpoenas were designed to determine whether lawmakers had a discriminatory motives in passing the controversial law.

“By the plaintiffs’ own admission, the subpoenas’ purpose was to uncover the legislators’ motives in passing the law. ‘The privilege applies with full force against requests for information about the motives for legislative votes and legislative enactments,’” the opinion said, partially quoting a legal precedent. “So, the privilege applies with its usual force against the discovery of even the factual documents in the Florida legislators’ possession. The district court abused its discretion when it determined otherwise.”

But Judge Jill Pryor, in a 30-page dissent, wrote that the subpoenas were issued amid broader arguments that the law violates federal equal-protection rights. She wrote that such cases “may turn on the subjective motivations of legislators. I would not require plaintiffs put to such proof to litigate these important cases with one hand tied behind their backs.”

"In essence, the majority opinion forces a whole category of plaintiffs, tasked with an already difficult standard of proof, to make their cases without the tools ordinarily available to civil litigants."
Judge Jill Pryor

“Today, the majority opinion places equal protection plaintiffs within our (11th) circuit in a double bind,” Jill Pryor wrote. “Under our existing precedent, they must meet the increasingly difficult task of producing persuasive evidence of legislative intent to discriminate. And they must do so by focusing on the specific chain of events leading to the enactment of the challenged legislation. The majority opinion adds that — no matter the circumstances — they are not entitled to discovery into ‘legislative acts or the motivation for actual performance of legislative acts.’ In essence, the majority opinion forces a whole category of plaintiffs, tasked with an already difficult standard of proof, to make their cases without the tools ordinarily available to civil litigants.”

The 2022 law, known as the “Stop Wrongs To Our Kids and Employees Act,” or “Stop WOKE Act.” seeks to restrict how race-related issues can be addressed in higher education and in workplace training.

The law lists a series of race-related concepts and says it would constitute discrimination if students are subjected to instruction that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates or compels” them to believe the concepts.

As an example, the law labels instruction discriminatory if students are led to believe that they bear “responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.”

As another example, the law seeks to prohibit instruction that would cause students to “feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.”

The subpoena fight has played out in a lawsuit filed by instructors and a student from six universities. Walker in November issued a preliminary injunction against the law in that case and another challenge, finding that the law violated First Amendment and due-process rights.

The state has appealed the preliminary injunction to the Atlanta-based appeals court, but parts of the case also have continued before Walker. The preliminary-injunction appeal remains pending.

The subpoenas were issued to 13 co-sponsors of the bill — Rep. Melony Bell, R-Fort Meade; Rep. David Borrero, R-Sweetwater; former Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, R-Miami-Dade County; Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County; Rep. Randy Maggard, R-Dade City; Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto; Rep. Stan McClain, R-Ocala; Rep. Toby Overdorf, R-Palm City; Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka; Rep. Rick Roth, R-West Palm Beach; Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe; Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island; and Rep. Keith Truenow, R-Tavares — and Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.
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