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Federal appeals court orders another look at immigration rulings backing Florida

People leave the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices, Wednesday, July 26, 2023, in Miramar, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Wilfredo Lee
People leave the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices, Wednesday, July 26, 2023, in Miramar, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

A federal appeals court Tuesday ordered a district judge to reconsider rulings that backed Florida challenges to Biden administration immigration policies, citing a U.S. Supreme Court opinion last year against Texas and Louisiana in a separate case.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Pensacola-based U.S. District Judge T. Kent Wetherell to determine whether he had “jurisdiction” in the Florida case “in light of” the U.S. Supreme Court opinion.

The jurisdiction issue involves whether Florida had legal standing to challenge the immigration policies. Plaintiffs must show standing before judges have jurisdiction to decide cases.

While Tuesday’s one-paragraph order remanding the case to Wetherell did not provide a detailed explanation, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in June that Texas and Louisiana did not have standing to challenge Biden administration immigration-enforcement policies. That opinion came after the federal government appealed Wetherell’s rulings in the Florida case.

The Supreme Court opinion said the Texas and Louisiana case “implicates the executive branch’s enforcement discretion and raises the distinct question of whether the federal judiciary may in effect order the executive branch to take enforcement actions.”

“In short, this (Supreme) Court’s precedents and longstanding historical practice establish that the states’ suit here is not the kind redressable by a federal court,” the Supreme Court decision said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Attorney General Ashley Moody have made a high-profile issue of challenging federal immigration policies as migrants have streamed across the country’s southwestern border.

The state filed a lawsuit in September 2021 alleging that the Biden administration violated laws through “catch-and-release” policies that led to people being released from detention after crossing the border. The state has contended that undocumented immigrants move to Florida and create costs for such things as the education, health-care and prison systems.

Wetherell, a former state appellate judge who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump, issued rulings in March 2023 and May 2023 that said immigration policies known as “Parole Plus Alternatives to Detention” and “Parole with Conditions” violated federal law.

The Biden administration went to the Atlanta-based appeals court in May. After the Supreme Court ruling in the Texas and Louisiana case, U.S. Department of Justice attorneys filed a brief in July arguing the appeals court should reject the Florida case for similar reasons.

“In United States v. Texas, the Supreme Court held that two states lacked standing to challenge DHS’s (the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s) immigration enforcement policies because they lacked ‘a legally and judicially cognizable’ injury where their alleged injury were costs associated with having more noncitizens in their states. Florida similarly fails to satisfy the ‘bedrock constitutional requirement’ of standing,” the Justice Department brief said.

But on June 26, just three days after the Supreme Court opinion, state attorneys filed a brief that tried to differentiate the cases. As an example, they said the Texas and Louisiana case involved policies related to arresting and starting removal proceedings against migrants who crossed the U.S. border, while the Florida case involves “parole” policies that involve releasing people.

“Because the parole policies are not enforcement policies — because they both concern only detention and grant affirmative legal benefits — Florida has a judicially cognizable interest in remedying the sovereign and financial injuries they cause,” the state’s lawyers wrote.

A panel of the appeals court heard arguments in the case Jan. 26. In Tuesday’s order, the appeals court directed Wetherell to make a determination on the jurisdiction issue and then return the court to the higher court for “further proceedings.”

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Jim Saunders - News Service of Florida