By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Tallahassee
TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge listened to more than two hours of arguments Tuesday about whether he should block a new Florida law that restricts people from China from owning property in the state.
U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor asked numerous questions of attorneys for the state and plaintiffs seeking a preliminary injunction against the law. He said he would make a decision as soon as he can but that a ruling would not be “super imminent.”
Four Chinese people and a real-estate brokerage that serves Chinese clients filed a lawsuit and sought an injunction after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the law (SB 264) in May. The lawsuit, which has been backed by the U.S. Department of Justice, contends that the restrictions violate constitutional rights and the federal Fair Housing Act and are trumped by federal law.
DeSantis and Republican legislative allies this spring pointed to a need to curb the influence of the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party in Florida. But Ashley Gorski, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing the plaintiffs, told Winsor the state has relied on “pernicious stereotypes” to conflate people from China with the Chinese government.
“There are always all of these stereotypes and really tired tropes that governments have used, perpetuating Asians as foreigners and enemies of the state,” Bethany Li, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund who also represents the plaintiffs, told reporters before the hearing.
State Solicitor General Henry Whitaker said during the hearing that the law is designed to protect the security of Florida.
“The state is concerned with the influence of the Chinese Communist Party and their agents in Florida,” Whitaker said.
As an indication of the interest in the case, an unusually large crowd packed a courtroom in the federal courthouse in Tallahassee. Before the hearing, dozens of opponents of the law gathered outside the building.
The law affects people from what Florida calls “foreign countries of concern” — China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria, with part of it specifically focused on Chinese people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents.
The legal challenge centers on such Chinese people. Under the law, they would be prevented from purchasing property in Florida, with some exceptions. For example, they each would be allowed to purchase one residential property up to two acres if the property is not within five miles of a military base and they have non-tourist visas.
Plaintiffs are in the United States on such things as work and student visas. One is seeking asylum, according to the lawsuit, which was filed May 22 and revised June 5.
The law also would prevent people from the seven “foreign countries of concern” from buying agricultural land and property near military bases. Those parts of the law would apply to people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents.
Winsor and the attorneys engaged in back-and-forth discussions about a series of issues Tuesday, including whether the law violates constitutional equal-protection rights, the Fair Housing Act and whether it is “preempted” by federal law.
Part of the preemption issue stems from a federal law that created what is known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, which has power to review real-estate transactions involving certain people from other countries.
Gorski argued that the Florida law deals with the “intersection” of national security, foreign affairs and foreign investment — and is preempted by federal law.
But Whitaker said there has been no indication that the Florida law would undermine the federal government’s ability to scrutinize property sales.
The Department of Justice last month filed a 22-page “statement of interest” supporting the lawsuit and preliminary-injunction request, arguing the law violates the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Protection Clause.
Meanwhile, attorneys general from Idaho, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah filed a friend-of-the-court brief last week opposing the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction.