Politico: Federal appeals court narrowly blocks controversial Florida law barring Chinese land ownership

Image for Politico: Federal appeals court narrowly blocks controversial Florida law barring Chinese land ownership
Echo King, president of the Florida Asian American Justice Alliance, introduces speakers at a rally outside the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee Tuesday after a hearing on a lawsuit challenging a new state law restricting land purchases by some Chinese people. Credit: Bruce Ritchie/POLITICO

“This prohibition blatantly violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection against discrimination,” Judge Nancy Abudu wrote.

By Bruce Ritchie

TALLAHASSEE, Florida — A federal appeals court blocked a controversial Florida law restricting Chinese citizens from buying land from being enforced against two people who sued the state, with one judge saying the law “blatantly violates” protections against discrimination.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta on Thursday said the Chinese immigrant plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, have shown a “substantial likelihood of success” in proving their case against the 2023 state law championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

One of the appeals court judges, Nancy Abudu, a former civil rights lawyer appointed by President Joe Biden, said the anti-Chinese statements of Florida officials about the legislation “establish that the law is a blanket ban against Chinese non-citizens from purchasing land within the state.”

“This prohibition blatantly violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection against discrimination,” Abudu wrote.

While the appeals court panel stopped short of entirely blocking the law, it granted an injunction for two of the plaintiffs in the case who said they feared they will be forced to cancel contracts they signed to buy homes.

“The balance of equities tips in their favor because their recent and pending transactions create the most imminent risk of irreparable harm in the absence of a stay,” the panel wrote.

Gov. Ron DeSantis championed the law last year while on the presidential campaign trail and criticized the administration of President Joe Biden for siding with plaintiffs in the case. DeSantis, who signed the bill, FL SB264 (23R), into law in May but is not a defendant in the case, tweeted in July that while the Biden administration “sides with Communist China, I side with the American people.”

Julia Friedland, the governor’s deputy press secretary, said the governor’s office disagreed with the decision to grant a preliminary injunction for the two plaintiffs.

“That being said, our law is still very much in effect, we are confident in our legal position on the merits, and we will continue to fight back against foreign malign influence in Florida,” she said.

The ACLU praised the 11th Circuit’s decision.

“There’s no doubt that Florida’s discriminatory housing law is unconstitutional,” Ashley Gorski, an ACLU senior staff attorney, said in a statement. “The court’s decision brings two of our clients tremendous relief, and we will continue fighting to prevent this law from being enforced more broadly.”

The law specifically prohibits those from China who are “domiciled” there and are not “lawful” U.S. residents from buying or owning more than a single parcel of two acres. The land may not be within five miles of a military installation. Several other states, including Texas and Louisiana, weighed similar measures last year.

Florida’s bill, also supported by Republican Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, further restricts agricultural land ownership for people from China and six other countries considered hostile, including Iran and Cuba.

There was no immediate response to a request for comment from a spokesperson at the state agriculture department, which held a workshop this week on a proposed rule to enforce the new law.

In June, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a “statement of interest” in the case, contending the new law violated federal law and the U.S. Constitution.

“These unlawful provisions will cause serious harm to people simply because of their national origin, contravene federal civil rights laws, undermine constitutional rights, and will not advance the state’s purported goal of increasing public safety,” the DOJ said in June.

The 11th circuit’s ruling is the latest court decision on the matter. In August, U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, ruled those challenging the new law had not shown that the Republican-controlled Legislature was intentionally discriminating against Chinese individuals when it passed the restrictions.

Bethany Li, legal director of Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is among the firms representing the plaintiffs, said Thursday the state law is a clear violation of the equal protection clause of the U. S. Constitution.

“Today’s ruling should serve as a warning to other states who are considering passing similarly racist bills, steeped in a history when Asians were ineligible for citizenship and were told they didn’t belong,” she said in a statement. “As a country, we should be making progress and passing laws that protect all communities rather than going back in time and reviving antiquated laws passed over a century ago.”


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