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Judge denies attempt to dismiss lawsuit challenging Florida's migrant flights

'I think we just need to hear out these issues,' Leon Circuit Judge John Cooper says
Posted at 5:33 PM, Jan 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-13 17:33:00-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A judge said Friday a lawsuit against the governor's migrant deportation program can move forward.

The decision was a victory for state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami, whose original legal challenge was dismissed last year with the option of refiling more "precise" arguments. Pizzo did so in December, prompting this week's more than two-hour hearing.

After it was over, Leon Circuit Judge John Cooper said the lawmaker not only had legal standing as a taxpayer but that Pizzo's arguments were valid to pursue.

"I deny the defendants' motion to dismiss on the grounds that, I think, we just need to hear out these issues," Cooper said.

The challenge centers on last September's controversial migrant flights funded by tax dollars in the current state budget. Florida officials used a portion of a $12 million pot to fly about 50 Venezuelan migrants, many asylum seekers, from San Antonio to Martha's Vineyard.

In his amended complaint, Pizzo alleges the program violated the state constitution by using budget language, not lawmakers, to create a substantial new program. Also, the lawsuit claims it failed to solicit enough bids for its vendor, and the operation infringed on federal immigration authority.

"The judge came down with the correct ruling with respect to motions to dismiss," Mark Herron, the plaintiff's attorney, said.

Herron was mostly happy with the outcome and said with immigration issues again making headlines, a favorable future ruling could bar the governor from taking similar action.

"The governor has said he intends to spend the entire $12 million," Herron said. "The CFO recently said I'm going to sign these checks because we're going to stick it to the federal government."

Speaking of the CFO, he was dropped from the lawsuit.

Cooper said Jimmy Patronis' role in the program wasn't significant enough to remain. Cooper kept the other defendants, the Florida DOT and the governor.

Their attorneys declined to comment following the hearing. As of Friday afternoon, the governor's press team had yet to respond to requests. Even so, the Republican has regularly defended the flights during news conferences.

"What we're doing is not the ultimate solution," DeSantis said in September. "I think it's opening people's eyes to the solution, which is let's have a secure border…"

A hearing is now set for Jan. 30 to discuss the next steps in what could result in a full trial over the migrant program's legality. The governor's attorneys indicated they would seek a summary judgment to avoid that.

One thing that could draw out this legal battle is a disagreement over whether the governor has executive privilege in this case. His attorneys have suggested DeSantis does, but Cooper said he doesn't agree, given that Florida has broad transparency rules under its sunshine laws.