Federal court rejects challenge to Florida's ‘sanctuary cities’ law
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - In a win for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers, a federal appeals court Thursday tossed out a challenge to a 2019 immigration law that banned so-called sanctuary cities in Florida.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling by a South Florida district judge that blocked parts of the controversial law. The appeals court also ordered dismissal of the lawsuit because it said plaintiffs did not have legal standing to challenge the law.
Several groups, such as the Florida Immigrant Coalition and the Farmworker Association of Florida, filed the lawsuit in July 2019, raising constitutional issues and alleging discriminatory intent in the law (SB 168). But Thursday’s ruling said, in part, the groups could not show proof of "actual injury" needed to establish standing.
"First, the organizations maintain that their members have suffered, and will continue to suffer, racial profiling by law enforcement complying with SB 168. Second, the organizations assert that they have diverted resources from existing programs to respond to SB 168. Neither theory holds water," said the 28-page ruling written by Chief Judge William Pryor and joined by Judges Stanley Marcus and Kathryn Kimball Mizelle.
While the ruling was based on a lack of legal standing, the Atlanta-based appeals court also took issue with U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom’s underlying decision.
"Because the organizations lack standing, we cannot opine on the merits of this case," Pryor wrote. "But our holding that the organizations lack standing should not be read as suggesting that we agree with the district court on the merits. Indeed, we have grave doubts about the merits, but the district court lacked jurisdiction to rule on them."
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the law in May 2019 along nearly straight party lines after heavy debate. In a September 2021 decision, Bloom said two major parts of the law violated constitutional equal-protection rights and issued a permanent injunction against them.
MIRAMAR, FLORIDA - APRIL 10: People waiting to visit the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office are seen through a sign being held up by a protester during a press conference to announce a travel alert for the state of Florida on April
One of those parts banned state and local agencies from having sanctuary policies that would prevent law-enforcement officials from cooperating with federal immigration-enforcement efforts.
The other part required law-enforcement agencies to use "best efforts" to support enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Bloom delved extensively into the Legislature’s development of the law and pointed to what she described as an "immigrant threat narrative" that helped lead to it.
"Based on the evidence presented, the court finds that plaintiffs have proven by a preponderance of the evidence that SB 168 has discriminatory or disparate effects on racial and ethnic minorities, and these discriminatory effects were both foreseeable and known to the Legislature at the time of SB 168’s enactment," she wrote.
Bloom earlier in the case issued an injunction against part of the law that dealt with state and local law-enforcement officers transporting people with immigration detainers to federal facilities. She said that part was "preempted" by federal immigration law and, as a result, was unconstitutional.
But in Thursday’s ruling, the appeals court said the organizations challenging the law had "not established that their members face present harm or a ‘certainly impending’ threat of racial profiling as a result of SB 168."
"Instead of suing immediately to enjoin enforcement of SB 168, the organizations would have been better off waiting for concrete evidence that the enforcement of SB 168 would lead to profiling," the ruling said. "In this sense, their challenge is not ripe for judgment. Even if the organizations could prove that local officers profiled their members, they have not proved that the officers acted based on SB 168."
The ruling also said Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody should not have been defendants in the case.
"The record lacks any evidence that links the governor or attorney general to racial profiling by local officers under SB 168," Pryor wrote. "That absence of proof makes sense because SB 168 provides the governor with few, if any, tools to make the judgment calls that might result in racial profiling. Federal officials tell local officials which individuals are subject to a detainer. Federal officials request cooperation. Local officials make the arrests. Local officials transport detainees to federal custody. SB 168 does not involve the governor or attorney general in incidents of racial profiling."
The ruling came as lawmakers consider proposals (SB 1718 and HB 1617) that would take additional steps to target illegal immigration. The bills are pending in Senate and House committees.