ORLANDO, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t had any problem pushing his firebrand conservative agenda through the Florida Legislature, scoring national headlines that have propelled him to the top of potential GOP contenders for president in 2024.
But some of his biggest priorities — combating what he calls Big Tech censorship, creating a new “anti-riot” law and banning so-called sanctuary cities — have hit a wall in the courts with key provisions being blocked.
More courtroom battles loom.
DeSantis, a Harvard law graduate, is defending legal challenges to his congressional redistricting map, his “anti-woke” law and legislation known by critics as the “don’t say gay” law. The federal courts also struck down a sweeping gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that would have brought sports betting to the state.
“DeSantis is God’s gift to lawyers,” said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University. “He is interested in playing to the base, owning liberals and trying to position himself for the 2024 presidential election. He doesn’t care if laws are constitutional. He doesn’t care if laws stand up in court.”
The stack of lawsuits generated by such scorched-earth politics isn’t without a cost to taxpayers, Jarvis said. State contracts show Florida has paid as much as $675 an hour to outside lawyers to defend the laws. Florida has paid more than $677,000 to the Washington, D.C., law firm Cooper & Kirk just to assist in the social media litigation, according to state financial records .
DeSantis has scored some courtroom wins. A federal judge tossed an early legal challenge to his effort to disband Disney World’s private government in Central Florida. An appeals court reversed a decision blocking an elections law championed by DeSantis.
He also was on the winning side in legal tussles over vaccine mandates for federal contractors, COVID-19 cruise ship restrictions and prohibitions on school mask mandates.
DeSantis has clashed with Democratic-appointed federal judges, particularly Judge Mark Walker of Tallahassee, who was appointed by President Barack Obama. In March, DeSantis dismissed a scathing ruling from Walker on an elections law putting new regulations on mail voting as “performative partisanship.”
“It was not unforeseen because we typically set our clocks to getting a partisan outcome in that court,” DeSantis said in March.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, where much of the legal battle has been waged, is more conservative leaning. Even there, DeSantis has suffered setbacks, most recently with a ruling striking down key parts of his Big Tech law.
Plaintiffs challenging DeSantis’ agenda have included the League of Women Voters of Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
DeSantis is doing “what is right for Floridians,” Bryan Griffin, a DeSantis spokesman, said when asked about legal costs incurred by the state to defend the governor’s priority legislation.
“This is typical from the left,” he said. “They want to force their radical ideology on school children, or prevent elections from being secure, or censor people online — and then they act surprised when the governor stands up to them. Ask the activist groups that sue to accomplish their agenda by judicial fiat about the cost to taxpayers that they are incurring.”
Regardless of the outcome in court, DeSantis scores politically by pushing culture war laws popular with his conservative base, even if they are later ruled unconstitutional, said Joshua Scacco, a University of South Florida political scientist.
“It is the initial messaging of the passage of the bill that will stick with the voter and not the after-action court decisions,” Scacco said. “He’s not going to run on the actions of independent courts. The courts can block his efforts, but the governor can claim he is standing up for particular values and issues as he is running for reelection.”
That messaging also has helped DeSantis rack up campaign contributions from small donors across the country. He’s blasted out fundraising emails to highlight the hot-button issues with conservatives, highlighting laws that are later contested in court.
One campaign email in March targeted The Walt Disney Co.’s stance on the so-called “don’t say gay” bill.
“Woke Disney is echoing Democrat propaganda and falling for the corporate media’s phony hysteria,” the email read.
His message resonates with donors big and small and often from outside the state.
Through March, DeSantis has raked in more than $1.4 million for his reelection effort from people who donated $100 or less to his political committee. About 38% of contributors to his political committee listed an address outside Florida, according to an Orlando Sentinel analysis of campaign finance records.
DeSantis has raised more than $100 million for his reelection effort, securing large donations from billionaires and the Republican Governors Association.
Here is where litigation stands on some of DeSantis top priorities.
Disney: DeSantis’ effort to ax Disney World’s private government has already drawn a legal challenge. William Sanchez, a Miami lawyer running for U.S. Senate as a Democrat, filed a lawsuit on behalf of three Central Florida taxpayers, arguing it violated their rights under state law. A judge quickly tossed the lawsuit, writing that the plaintiffs haven’t been damaged by a law that doesn’t take effect until next year. Additional legal challenges could be forthcoming with the Reedy Creek Improvement District set to dissolve on June 1, 2023. State law includes a pledge to bondholders not to restrict the district’s ability to repay about $1 billion in debt.
‘Don’t say gay’: Equality Florida and other LGBTQ advocacy groups are trying to block legislation known by critics as the “don’t say gay” law from taking effect on July 1. HB 1557, officially titled Parental Rights in Education, prohibits classroom instruction on “sexual orientation or gender identity” in grades kindergarten through three or in a manner that is not “age-appropriate.” The groups allege the law is discriminatory, vague and runs afoul of the free speech rights of students and teachers. A judge has set a trial date for February
Big Tech: The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled key parts of DeSantis’ law targeting Big Tech are unconstitutional, upholding a similar ruling in the district court. The Big Tech law sought to fine social media companies that deplatform candidates up to $250,000 a day, among other regulations. A three-judge panel wrote that government meddling in social media platforms’ content-moderation policies ran afoul of the First Amendment. The governor’s office is evaluating its appeal options.
Anti-riot law: Passed in the wake of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2021, DeSantis’ “anti-riot” law aimed to crack down on mob violence by toughening penalties for existing crimes and creating new felonies related to violent protests. In September, a federal judge temporarily blocked the law, writing that it is “ vague and overbroad “ and could subject people who are peacefully protesting to criminal charges. The state appealed and is trying to get the injunction lifted.
Immigration: One of the central planks of DeSantis’ immigration policy was a ban on so-called “sanctuary cities” with policies that protect undocumented immigrants. A South Florida federal judge struck down key parts of the law, writing that Republican lawmakers had “discriminatory” motives. Attorney General Ashley Moody is trying to get that ruling overturned on appeal, arguing the judge “committed numerous errors to arrive at the remarkable conclusion that the Florida Legislature had secret racist motivations.”
Congressional redistricting: DeSantis’ redistricting map that could diminish the state’s Black representation in Congress is being challenged. A state appeals court reinstated DeSantis’ map and reversed a lower court’s ruling that would have used an alternative map. Voting-rights groups want the state Supreme Court to take up the issue.
“Anti-woke” law: DeSantis’ effort to combat “woke” ideology in corporate training and school lessons has already drawn a federal lawsuit arguing it violates the First Amendment. The law bans schools and businesses from teaching that a person is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
Election laws: A federal appeals court reinstated a law that tightened regulations on mail ballots, drop boxes and voter registration groups. Walker, a federal district judge, had blocked key portions of that law, writing it would suppress the Black vote.
Felon voting: DeSantis scored a legal win in a dispute over whether Floridians with felony convictions must pay all fines and fees before they are allowed to vote. The 11th Circuit of Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s ruling that would have allowed felons who are unable to pay fines to still vote. The legal dispute focused on what it means to complete a sentence as referenced in the 2018 voter-approved Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to people with felony convictions.
Gambling: A federal judge struck down a sweeping gambling deal that would have brought sports betting to Florida under the control of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The Seminoles, along with the federal Department of Interior that approved the deal, have appealed the ruling.
Ballot initiatives: U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, struck down a $3,000 limit on contributions to political committees supporting or opposing ballot initiatives, writing it violates political free speech. DeSantis and Florida Republicans are making another attempt to impose a limit, narrowing the law to apply to out-of-state donors.
Abortion: Florida passed a law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest. The contentious legislation was modeled after a similar law in Mississippi under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. A leaked draft opinion signaled the high court is on the verge of overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which guaranteed constitutional protections of abortion rights.