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Judge refuses to dismiss migrant flights case

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a committee meeting
Andrew Harnik
/
AP
Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration flew about 50 migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard in September using funds allocated to transport migrants out of Florida.

A Leon County circuit judge Friday rejected a request by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration to dismiss a lawsuit filed after the state flew about 50 migrants from Texas to Massachusetts in September.

Judge John Cooper’s ruling set the stage for a full hearing in the constitutional challenge filed by state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach. The flights to Martha’s Vineyard drew national attention and came as DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, frequently criticizes federal immigration policies.

The lawsuit deals with the interplay of the state budget and substantive laws. It contends that part of this year’s budget used to pay for the flights violated the Florida Constitution because it created a new program and changed laws about issues such as contracting.

“I deny the defendants’ motion to dismiss on the grounds that I think we need to just hear out these issues.” Cooper said after a roughly two-hour hearing.

Lawmakers 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 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 budget fine print included additional details, such as saying the Department of Transportation, “may, upon the receipt of at least two quotes, negotiate and enter into contracts with private parties” The lawsuit contends the section of the budget created a program and dealt with other issues that, under the Constitution, would need to be handled through substantive laws.

But Nicholas Meros, a deputy general counsel for DeSantis, disputed during Friday’s hearing that the budget created a new program or changed state laws.

Meros said an immigration-enforcement law (SB 1808) passed last year allowed such flights and the budget details were “simply, ‘here’s how you spend the money.”

“It’s not creating a new program,” Meros said. “It’s not adding things onto a program.”

The lawsuit named as defendants DeSantis, the Department of Transportation and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. While Cooper allowed it to move forward against DeSantis and the department, he dismissed Patronis from the case, saying the CFO only “cut the check.”

Cooper has scheduled a Jan. 30 final hearing in the case.

While the state spent $615,000 on the September flights, three additional Vertol purchase orders of $950,000 each are listed on a state contracting website for “relocation services.”

Mark Herron, an attorney for Pizzo, pointed Friday to the possibility of more flights as the case continues.

“The governor has said, ‘I intend to spend the entire $12 million,’ and the CFO has recently just said, ‘I am going to sign these checks because we are going to stick it to the federal government,’” Herron told reporters after Friday’s hearing.

Meros declined to comment as he left the courtroom.