By Jim Saunders
TALLAHASSEE — A battle about a new Florida law that restricts people from China from owning property in the state is headed to a federal appeals court.
Attorneys for four Chinese people and a real-estate brokerage that serves Chinese clients filed a notice Monday that is a first step in appealing a ruling last week by U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor that rejected a preliminary injunction against the law.
The notice, as is common, did not detail arguments the plaintiffs will make at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But after last week’s ruling, attorneys issued statements indicating they would continue fighting the law, which they contend violates equal-protection rights and the federal Fair Housing Act.
“Florida’s law legitimizes and expands housing discrimination, in violation of both the Constitution and the Fair Housing Act,” Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberty Union’s National Security Project and a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature approved the law this spring, pointing to a need to curb the influence of the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party in Florida.
The overall law affects people from what Florida calls “foreign countries of concern” — China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria. But the lawsuit focuses on part of the measure that specifically puts restrictions on people from China who are not U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents.
That part prevents people “domiciled” in China from purchasing property in Florida, with some exceptions. Such people each would be allowed to purchase one residential property up to two acres if the property is not within five miles of a military base and they have non-tourist visas. Three of the plaintiffs are in the United States on visas, while one is seeking asylum.
After filing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs in June requested a preliminary injunction. But in his 51-page ruling Thursday, Winsor wrote that the plaintiffs had not “shown a substantial likelihood of success” on the issues in the case.
Winsor, who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump, wrote that U.S. Supreme Court precedents have “held that states could deny aliens ownership interests in land within their respective borders absent an arbitrary or unreasonable basis.” He also indicated a key is that the “law classifies based on where an alien is domiciled.”
“It does not facially discriminate against noncitizens based on race or ancestry. It does not discriminate against noncitizens based on ‘the particular country in which one was born,’” Winsor wrote, partially quoting a Supreme Court precedent. “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.”
Winsor also wrote that the plaintiffs had not “shown a substantial likelihood that unlawful animus motivated the Legislature” in passing the measure (SB 264).
But during a July hearing, Gorski told Winsor the state has relied on “pernicious stereotypes” to conflate people from China with the Chinese government.
The overall law prevents people from the seven “foreign countries of concern” from buying agricultural land and property near military bases. Those parts of the law apply to people who are not U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents