Migrant flights lawsuit dismissed after changes

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Dara Farez, 2, sits in a stroller during a protest with the immigration reform advocacy group CASA, rally outside of the Republican National Committee building in Washington, on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. The protest, which included activists and undocumented immigrants from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, was aimed at President Joe Biden, asking him to ensure citizenship and greater legal protection to undocumented workers. Farez's mother said she had been protesting for two months with her young daughter in tow. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A Leon County circuit judge Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit filed after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration sparked controversy in September by flying about 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

DeSantis administration attorneys argued that the lawsuit, filed by state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, became moot when the Legislature this month passed a law aimed at bolstering efforts to transport migrants to “sanctuary” areas of the country.

During a late-afternoon hearing Wednesday, Circuit Judge John Cooper dismissed the lawsuit after Pizzo’s attorney, Mark Herron, acknowledged that it should end.

The lawsuit contended that a section of the state budget used to pay for the September flights was unconstitutional because it created a new program and changed laws about issues such as contracting. The law passed this month took a series of steps to address the legal issues raised by Pizzo.

Pizzo, an attorney, briefly addressed the judge Wednesday and said he achieved what he sought in the lawsuit, at least in part because it spurred the Legislature to make changes.

“We got what we asked for,” he said.

Cooper said the dismissal should not be construed as a decision on the constitutional issues in the case. He said the dismissal stemmed from the legislative changes.

“Each side can take what they wish,” Cooper said.

The lawsuit dealt with the interplay of the state budget and substantive laws. Broadly, issues in the annual budget are not supposed to change more-permanent laws.

The Republican-controlled Legislature last year included $12 million in the budget for the Department of Transportation to carry out a “program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.”

The DeSantis administration used $615,000 of that money to pay Vertol Systems Company, Inc. to fly the migrants Sept. 14 from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, with a brief stop in the Northwest Florida community of Crestview. Also, four additional Vertol purchase orders of $950,000 each are listed on a state contracting website for “relocation services.”

Legislative staff analyses said $1.565 million had been spent as of Jan. 31, leaving a balance of $10.435 million from the original $12 million.

With Pizzo’s constitutional challenge pending, the Legislature on Feb. 10 passed a law that effectively sought to neutralize the legal arguments.

In part, the law repealed the part of the budget that was used as a basis for the flights and created the Unauthorized Alien Transport Program in state law. Also, the bill funneled remaining money provided in the budget section back to state coffers, and allocated $10 million to the newly created program — effectively swapping out money.

After DeSantis signed the bill last week, administration attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case because of mootness.

“Here, it is indisputable that SB 6-B repeals (the section of the budget),” the motion to dismiss said. “Moreover, by repealing (the section) the Legislature effectively gave plaintiff (Pizzo) precisely what he requested. It eliminated the challenged appropriation, which allegedly amended substantive law, thereby ensuring it cannot be used to transfer unauthorized aliens.”

DeSantis, who is a potential 2024 presidential candidate, frequently criticizes Democratic President Joe Biden on border and immigration issues. Pizzo said after Wednesday’s hearing that DeSantis is trying to use the newly passed program for political purposes and to set up a “showdown.”

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