Judge poised to consider migrant flights case

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By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A Leon County circuit judge will hear arguments Friday about whether he should toss out a lawsuit filed by a South Florida state senator after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration flew about 50 migrants from Texas to Massachusetts in September.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, contends in the lawsuit that part of the state budget used to pay for the flights violates the Florida Constitution and that the DeSantis administration improperly infringed on the federal government’s authority over immigration issues.

But attorneys for DeSantis, the Florida Department of Transportation and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis filed motions last week to dismiss the case. Circuit Judge John Cooper, who rejected an earlier version of the lawsuit in November, is slated to hold a hearing Friday on a revised complaint.

The case focuses primarily on $12 million that lawmakers included in the state budget for the Department of Transportation to carry out a “program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.”

The DeSantis administration contracted with Vertol Systems Company, Inc. to transport two planeloads of migrants on Sept. 14 from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, with a stop in the Northwest Florida community of Crestview.

The Department of Transportation paid $615,000 to Vertol for the flights. Also, three additional Vertol purchase orders of $950,000 each are listed on a state contracting website for “relocation services.”

The flights spurred a national controversy and came as DeSantis, widely considered a possible 2024 Republican presidential candidate, often criticizes federal immigration policies.

Pizzo’s lawsuit argues, in part, that the section of the budget violates the Florida Constitution because it revised such things as procurement standards and created a new program. It said such changes would need to be made in substantive laws — rather than through the annual budget.

The lawsuit said it is seeking a declaration that the section of the budget is unconstitutional and an injunction “preventing defendants from continuing to spend monies unconstitutionally appropriated and to recoup monies already spent pursuant to the unconstitutional provision.”

Also, the lawsuit contends that the state violated what is known as the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution because the federal government has authority over immigration issues.

The lawsuit said that under the U.S. Constitution, “Congress is vested with exclusive power over immigration and naturalization. Under that and other constitutional and statutory authority, the federal government has exclusive authority to enact and enforce regulations concerning which immigrants to admit, exclude, remove or allow to remain in the United States.”

But in a motion to dismiss the case filed last week, attorneys for DeSantis and the Department of Transportation argued that Pizzo does not have legal standing to pursue the lawsuit. The motion said, in part, that Pizzo had not “alleged that he suffered any special injury.”

Also, the motion disputed Pizzo’s constitutional arguments. As an example, the state’s attorneys refuted the argument that the budget was used to improperly create a new program. The motion said the budget is frequently used to create programs, including at least five in the current spending plan.

“Prior appropriations have included similar language, which appears not to have engendered constitutional controversy,” the motion said.

Also, the DeSantis administration disputed violating federal authority on immigration issues.

“It (the section of the budget) does not regulate the flow of aliens into or out of the United States or determine anybody’s citizenship status; rather it makes funds available to facilitate the transport of consenting unauthorized aliens from Florida to other states,” the motion said.

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