Florida taxpayers lose on DeSantis culture war lawsuits

Linda D. Garrow


Editorials and other Opinion content offer perspectives on issues important to our community and are independent from the work of our newsroom reporters.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), on Feb. 24 in Orlando.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), on Feb. 24 in Orlando.


Gov. Ron DeSantis is a lawyer, and, boy, does it show.

Every time we turn around, the captain of Florida’s culture wars and his far-right positions are landing us in court: Big Tech and social-media deplatforming, a ban on sanctuary cities, the so-called anti-riot law, Disney and the “woke” act, congressional redistricting, the Seminole gambling deal, abortion. The list of litigation — or likely litigation — is long, and the opportunities for posturing by a savvy politician are great.

Sometimes it’s Florida being sued. Other times, the DeSantis administration is the one filing appeals or suits. But in either case, it must be awfully freeing to know you’re heading into court using other people’s money.

A court says you’re doing something unconstitutional? Challenge it! A judge says you’ve overreached? File that appeal! The taxpayers will be so busy mouthing the “free state of Florida” line you’ve been feeding them, they’ll never wonder how much of their hard-earned money went to line the pockets of lawyers to defend many of these ill-advised laws.

In a recent Orlando Sentinel story on all the litigation, law professor Bob Jarvis, of Nova Southeastern University, called the governor “God’s gift to lawyers.”

Sounds about right.

We don’t know how much this is costing taxpayers, but the lawyers’ fees alone must be enormous. The Sentinel story noted that Florida has paid as much as $675 an hour to lawyers to defend some of the new laws. In the Big Tech social-media case alone, the state has paid more than $677,000 to a Washington, D.C., law firm, the paper said.

We can think of some other things all that money could be used for. How about affordable housing or climate change or transportation? Those are actual crises, not the manufactured ones DeSantis drums up as he campaigns for reelection and maybe the White House.

Fox News face time

Whether or not Florida prevails in these taxpayer-financed court cases — Thursday, Florida’s Supreme Court allowed the governor’s congressional-district maps that reduce Black representation to stand — is almost immaterial for the governor’s purposes. He revels in the fight or — to be more accurate — the appearance of the fight. He gets headlines and face time on Fox News. Crowds applaud his tough-guy challenges to accepted norms, just as they did his old mentor, Donald Trump. He makes points with the GOP faithful when he skewers sacred cows — which happens mainly when, like Disney, they have the nerve to cross him.

And all the time, we’re the ones paying the bills.

As an additional insult to taxpayers, some of this litigation means our money is being used to defend laws that restrict our rights. The anti-riot act, for example, increases penalties for crimes committed during protests and creates new ones — but the law’s definition of a riot is so broad that even peaceful protesters might end up jailed for violence committed by others. The law also protects counter-protesters from civil liability if they injure or kill protesters. A judge temporarily blocked the law in September, but the state, of course, is appealing.

But the clever political calculation by our Harvard Law-educated governor is clear: By the time many of these cases make their way through the courts, DeSantis will have long reaped the benefits. Even if the case costs millions of dollars and Florida fails to prevail, he’ll come out a winner.

And taxpayers? You don’t need an Ivy League degree to figure out the answer to that one.


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This story was originally published June 3, 2022 6:00 AM.


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