By John Kennedy, Capital Bureau, USA TODAY NETWORK-FLORIDA, June 13, 2021
TALLAHASSEE – While Gov. Ron DeSantis is drawing praise from conservatives and pulling in campaign cash from across the nation, he also is attracting a crush of lawsuits spurred by the polarizing legislation he signed into law.
Opponents say the outcome of the courtroom challenges will be pivotal not just to stopping what they say are unconstitutional overreaches in Florida, but also blunting a wave of copycat measures spreading across other Republican-leaning states.
“Florida has passed more of these than any other state,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which is suing DeSantis over a new law criticized as anti-protest and another imposing strict financial limits on citizen-led ballot initiatives.
“Across the country, those who support justice and equality are watching what happens here,” he added. “When you sue, you don’t get to pick your judge. So this will tell us something about the contours of these battles and the impact former President Trump has had on the federal court.”
Roughly 30% of the judges on the nation’s federal courts of appeal, where most cases reach their conclusion, have been appointed by Trump, an ally of DeSantis.
Florida’s lawsuits are just in their beginning stages.
But the first challenge filed by the ACLU and civil rights groups came in Tallahassee federal court within hours of DeSantis signing the protest legislation, which imposes tough penalties and creates new crimes for violence stemming from demonstrations.
The other ACLU lawsuit followed the governor enacting $3,000 limits on donations to ballot measures, which have been used to advance such efforts refused by the GOP-controlled Legislature as expanding medical marijuana, increasing the minimum wage and restoring voting rights to felons.
With legal challenges quickly following the governor’s signings, another lawsuit is expected soon seeking to overturn a DeSantis-sought law banning transgender female athletes from playing women’s sports in Florida at the high school, club, intramural and college level.
DeSantis signed the bill June 1, the first day of the nationwide LGBTQ Pride Month, which opponents saw as a slap at a cohort that tends to vote for Democrats.
In the spate of lawsuits, DeSantis’ legislative agenda has been condemned as violating the U.S. constitution’s free speech, equal protection and interstate commerce provisions.
But even with the uncertainty surrounding whether DeSantis’ legislative agenda will stand up in court, the governor already is cresting on its success.
DeSantis, who is up for re-election next year and widely talked of as a potential 2024 Republican presidential contender, attended a half-dozen fund-raisers across Southern California in the last few days, padding a campaign account whose cash-on-hand already tops $39 million.
His fundraising is far outpacing two prominent Democratic challengers who recently announced their candidacies, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor.
DeSantis’ legislative agenda aligns with the priorities of the GOP base, and he’s likely to win points from conservative voters even if judges reject some of the measures.
“The bottom line of all politics has to be policy,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council. “I’ve been taken aback, really surprised and pleased at how aggressive he’s been.”
Stemberger and other conservative supporters push back against critics who charge the governor’s agenda is aimed primarily at courting Trump’s still-fervent base of voters.
Elections in Florida were conducted smoothly last fall, most of the Black Lives Matter protests that dominated the nation were peaceful in the state and transgender athletes have not emerged as much of a topic in school districts or college campuses.
But after labeling these efforts priorities, DeSantis’ wishes were met by a loyal GOP-dominated Legislature which, like the governor, is sensitive to what is trending on the political right.
“The essence of leadership is looking into the future and solving a problem before it gets here. That’s exactly what he’s doing,” Stemberger said in DeSantis’ defense.
With many of the measures enacted by DeSantis also mirrored in dozens of bills advanced by Republican lawmakers in many states, others see the governor as more of an opportunist than trailblazer.
They point out that DeSantis’ top issues mostly track themes advanced by conservative media, which keeps alive Trump’s view that vote fraud cost him the White House and that society is threatened by the Black Lives Matter movement and the left.
Douglas Rivero, a political scientist at St. Petersburg College, co-authored an analysis last year for the Florida Political Science Association examining the effect of “groupthink” on the Trump White House.
Rivero defined groupthink as “people thinking as a group almost all the time without real debating, questioning and reasoning,” instead guided chiefly by Trump’s dominance. That effect is now coursing through the conservative electorate and shaping DeSantis’ policy-making and politics, Rivero said.
“At this point, candidates like DeSantis are promoting ideas that appeal to the voting base because they see that as a key to victory,” Rivero said. “They’re doing what their supporters want, even though a lot of the big government steps they’re taking really goes against the traditional ideology of the Republican Party.”
DeSantis, though, clearly doesn’t see it that way.
In signing the social media legislation last month, the governor cited the new laws as bolstering the reputation Florida earned during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he opposed statewide lockdowns and mask requirements.
“We’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish,” DeSantis said. “We are, effectively, America’s West Berlin over the last year. And people view us as a free zone.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @JKennedyReportImage Credits: Fox 35- Orlando