‘Put Florida Supreme Court in position of telling us that we’re wrong,’ lawmaker says

Some Florida House Republicans have issued a challenge to the state’s top court — saying if the Legislature moves forward and enacts a constitutionally questionable measure seeking to impose harsher penalties on undocumented immigrants, then the Florida Supreme Court should prove them wrong.

HB 83, which passed its first House committee Wednesday, is rife with questions about its constitutionality because it subjects undocumented immigrants convicted of severe crimes to enhanced charges — and potentially longer prison sentences — solely on the basis of their immigration status.

But some House Republicans said a bill’s potential unconstitutionality shouldn’t be a factor in whether lawmakers approve it.

“I would submit to you that perhaps we sit in here one day and the Florida Supreme Court has told us this vote is wrong,” Tampa Republican Rep. James Grant said, but “I would encourage all of us to put the Florida Supreme Court in the position of telling us that we are wrong.”

Cape Coral Republican Dane Eagle said it’s “speculative” for opponents of his measure to assert that it’s unconstitutional — or for supporters, like himself, to declare it isn’t — until a court rules.

The fact is it’s purely speculation — and until we present something like this for the court to decide on, it will always be speculation.

Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral

“We don’t know that [it’s unconstitutional],” Eagle said. “We should not say, ‘I don’t know what the court is going to do, but I’m afraid of what they’re going to say, so we should not pursue this legislation.’ The fact is it’s purely speculation — and until we present something like this for the court to decide on, it will always be speculation.”

However, critics’ words of caution are not unfounded. The bulk of state and federal case law has found efforts to treat one criminal defendant more severely than another based on group affiliation, national origin or immigration status violate the U.S. Constitution’s provisions of due process and equal protection.

Coral Springs Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz countered the Republicans’ comments: “When it comes to trying to make a law that we know is unconstitutional — under this Speaker we’ve fought against wasting taxpayer money on lawsuits — I think we really need to take a second look at this and figure out if this is something we really want to do.”

The Republican-led Legislature in recent years has repeatedly passed controversial laws that were later blocked or deemed unconstitutional by a court — all at taxpayers’ expense. Examples include a blocked law passed last year mandating a 24-hour waiting period for abortions, the state’s death-penalty sentencing procedures that the U.S. Supreme Court threw out and that had to be corrected by the Legislature this session, and changes to Florida’s workers compensation laws that the Florida Supreme Court twice overturned last year.

HB 83 advanced out of its first of three House committees by a 10-5 vote on Wednesday. (Democrats opposed it.) The Senate version — similarly subjected to tough scrutiny about its constitutionality — still has one more committee hearing before it could reach the floor. But the ultimate fate of both those bills is unclear; they aren’t expected to pass both Houses due to the lingering constitutional questions.