Judge Refuses To Block Florida Law Restricting Land Ownership for Non-Citizens Living in Countries ‘Of Concern’
The judge found the plaintiffs had a low likelihood of success at trial and refused to block the law while the plaintiffs appeal his decision.
A federal judge refused to block a Florida law restricting land ownership by non-citizens and non-permanent residents whose permanent home, or domicile, is in China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, or Syria.
The judge refused to block the law pending litigation, finding the challengers had a low “likelihood of success on any of their claims.”
The ACLU and the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund (AALDEF) represent the plaintiffs. After the judge denied their first request, the ACLU and AALDEF asked the judge to block the law pending appeal of his denial. The judge also rejected this request.
The law blocks covered individuals from owning land “on or within 10 miles of any military installation or critical infrastructure” in Florida. The law prohibits covered individuals domiciled in China from owning any property in Florida, regardless of its proximity to “any military installation or critical infrastructure.”
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson praised the law as a means to protect Florida from “hostile foreign powers . . . purchasing agricultural lands and lands near critical facilities.”
“Our community will continue to fight against Florida’s unjust and racist alien land law,” AALDEF’s Bethany Li said in a press release. “These types of laws use false stereotypes about Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners and have repeatedly harmed our community.”
“We strongly disagree with the decision and will file an appeal in the coming days,” plaintiffs’ attorney Clay Zhu told Legal Insurrection.
The plaintiffs argued the law violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection, is void for vagueness, and is superseded by federal law, namely the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the law that created the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).
The court rejected arguments that the law classifies individuals based on race, ancestry, or national origin. Instead, the court reasoned, the law classifies individuals based on their domicile.
So contrary to Plaintiffs’ arguments, the challenged law is facially neutral as to race and national origin. It would apply to a person of Chinese descent domiciled in China the same way it would apply to a person not of Chinese descent domiciled in China. And its application would never turn on a person’s race.
Plaintiffs also argued the law classifies based on status as a non-U.S. citizen, or alienage. Florida did not challenge this claim but argued this classification likely did not render the law unconstitutional.
Agreeing with Florida, the court pointed to long-standing Supreme Court precedent showing states have the “power to deny aliens the right to own land within [their] borders.”
The court rejected the plaintiffs’ “proxy theory,” which posited “that the law ‘singles out’ noncitizens residing in China and therefore necessarily singles out people born there”:
But residency and birthplace do not clearly overlap to the point where they are practically indistinguishable, and Plaintiffs cite no authority for the proposition that classifications based on aliens’ residency should nonetheless be treated as birthplace classifications.
The plaintiffs’ also argued “that intentional racial, national-origin, and alienage discrimination motivated the new law.” The court rejected this argument, finding little evidence the Florida Legislature acted out of animus.
Void for Vagueness
The plaintiffs argued the law failed to adequately define “critical infrastructure,” “military installation,” and “domicile.”
This purported vagueness, the plaintiffs argued, rendered the law unconstitutionally vague under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which “encompasses the concepts of notice and fair warning.”
The court examined each challenged term in turn and found them sufficiently well-defined to withstand a vagueness claim:
First, the law defines “critical infrastructure facility” and “military installation” in detail—giving fair notice of the specific facility types that qualify. Refineries, power plants, airports, military camps, and so forth are plainly not such “broad, vague terms” so as to leave people guessing as to their meaning.
. . .
Second, as the State Defendants point out, “domicile” is a legal term that many jurisdictions’ statutes commonly use. And it has a settled meaning in Florida case law. (citations and footnote omitted)
The court also found the vagueness argument lacking because any uncertainty stemmed not from a lack of definiteness in the law but the failure of the plaintiffs to make factual inquiries necessary to determine compliance.
The law was not vague, the court reasoned, simply because plaintiffs “would have to determine measurements and find out—perhaps with some difficulty—whether specific installations” fell under the law.
FHA and CFIUS
The plaintiffs claimed the FHA superseded the challenged law because the FHA prohibits discrimination in housing based on “race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.”
The court rejected this argument based on its previous finding that the challenged law “does not make any classification based on any of these traits, instead classifying individuals based on alienage.
The plaintiffs’ final claim alleged the law creating CFIUS superseded the challenged law. CFIUS, a federal inter-agency committee, reviews real estate transactions involving foreign persons for national security issues.
The court rejected the plaintiffs’ CFIUS argument, finding the challenged law presented no obstacle to the enforcement of CFIUS decisions and that the Florida law provided an acceptable “supplement” to CFIUS.DONATE
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