By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican legislators are overperforming for their favorite constituents: rightist culture warriors seeking legal support in their struggle against people, ideas and policies they fear and detest.
The Texas abortion bill that Florida lawmakers are busy copying is just one example. “It’s something we’re already working on,” Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, said on Sept. 2.
His gold standard, the law Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed Sept. 7, will reward residents of the Lone Star State for snitching on any neighbor who helps a woman terminate her pregnancy after the sixth week.
The target could be an abortion provider or it could be an Uber driver, a guidance counselor, a caring relative–anyone at all. Anti-abortion zealots who win their court cases will reap windfalls of $10,000 plus attorney fees and costs.
Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 against putting enforcement of the Texas abortion law on hold until the high court can give it a full hearing. The court’s inaction was widely interpreted as a signal that its conservative majority plans to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Meanwhile in Florida, as DeSantis forges ahead with his base-pleasing agenda, other vigilante-style measures are shooting out of Tallahassee like heat-seeking missiles.
‘Texastan versus Floridastan’
New laws allow poll monitors to intimidate voters freely, let students and teachers sue schools that put transgender girls on girls’ sports teams, and encourage parents to sue school districts that impose COVID-19 mandates they don’t like.
Also, an “anti-riot” law protects from civil lawsuits maniacs who drive into crowds of peaceful protesters and mow them down. The law is a reaction to widespread Black Lives Matter rallies; it disregards the vehicular murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, VA four years ago.
“Our governor probably looks longingly at some of the headlines that Gov. Abbott gets and wonders what can I do now,” said Keith Donner, a Miami-based political and public affairs consultant. (Disclosure: Donner is a financial supporter of Florida Bulldog.)
“So it’s become a Texastan versus Floridastan battle to see which governor can stir up more chaos with the base, using the latest scheme involving citizen vigilantism,” Donner said.
Vigilantism goes legit
Florida and Texas signify a national trend of fostering vigilantes, law professors Jon Michaels of UCLA and David Noll of Rutgers University wrote in a New York Times opinion piece.
“In essence, the states are manufacturing and subsidizing a community of grievance activists,” they wrote. “In an era when fomenting — and even monetizing — social, cultural and racial grievances is crucial to the G.O.P.’s survival, [the Texas abortion law] is just the tip of the iceberg.”
There’s nothing new about fanatics exercising their warped sense of frontier justice – remember lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan? — but today’s brand of vigilantism is especially treacherous if it’s legal, according to Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.
“What used to be talked about underground is now not only talked about but actually being enacted by legislatures,” he said.
The idea of community self-help has a certain allure that benefits politicians like DeSantis and Abbott, Jarvis said.
‘You can’t trust anybody’
“This is outsourcing of government, or government on the cheap. Why should we have to pay when we can deputize the public and let the public do our work for us?” he asked. “It must be appealing to fiscal conservatives.
“From a legal standpoint, this is a way for the government to say it’s not us, we didn’t do this. This is all up to the public. If someone thinks this is wrong, we’ve given them the tools for them to self-correct,” Jarvis said. “It gets to the issue of what is the role of government and what is the role of the public.”
The popular embrace by some of vigilantism “really shows the breakdown that at least some portion of the public has in its trust and faith in the government and it really is very frightening,” he said. “This is how East Germany and other totalitarian states worked and still work. Everybody is reporting on everybody else and you can’t trust anybody.”
“There’s a lot of history behind this, both in this country and in other countries. It never ends well and it is how democracies die,” Jarvis said.
In Florida, civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are attacking the new crop of vigilante welfare laws.
‘This cannot happen here’
“Where these bills have been popping up, it’s something that we’ve been addressing and fighting back on,” said Kara Gross, legislative director of the Florida ACLU.
In an interview with Florida Bulldog, she spoke passionately about the need to prevent Florida from adopting the Texas abortion law.
“This is a direct assault on Roe v. Wade, making it virtually impossible to get a legal abortion, particularly if you are somebody who doesn’t have the means to travel, and everybody should be alarmed,” Gross said.
“This cannot happen here and we will do everything in our power to prevent it from happening, in the Legislature and the courts,” she said.
Advocates for a woman’s right to control her body have a powerful ally in Attorney General Merrick Garland, who just announced a Department of Justice lawsuit against Texas. The abortion law’s restrictions are “in open defiance of the Constitution,” the DOJ complaint says.
Judge discredits ‘anti-riot’ law
Gross said that when the “combating public disorder,” or, anti-riot bill was introduced in the Florida House early this year, “we were all over that. The vigilantism aspect was a significant part of our efforts to raise awareness and fight back against the harms of that bill.”
After it passed and DeSantis signed it in April, the Dream Defenders, the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP sued in federal court to prevent enforcement. Defendants are the state and three county sheriffs: Gregory Tony, Broward; Walt McNeil, Leon (Tallahassee), and Mike Williams, Jacksonville.
Last week, Tallahassee U.S. DIstrict Judge Mark Walker blocked immediate enforcement, writing that the law’s definition of “riot” is vague “to the point of unconstitutionality.”
Walker took a shot at DeSantis, who had promised to have “a ton of bricks rain down” on anyone who violated the anti-riot law. The judge wrote that the governor used “a threat of selective enforcement as his rain clouds.”
DeSantis: We’ll win on appeal
Walker did not address the law’s protection of citizens who act out against protesters, but that doesn’t bother Gross, a lawyer.
She said his ruling casts doubt on the legality of “shielding vigilantes from civil liability for killing or injuring protesters.” Gross declared “a major victory for constitutional rights and racial justice advocacy.”
Eventually the case will land in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta, where DeSantis expects a favorable outcome. “I guarantee we’ll win that on appeal,” he said at a news conference following Walker’s ruling.
This seems to be the governor’s standard response after court losses. He’s also appealing rulings by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper that uphold school district masking mandates despite a state ban.
The rule of politics, not law
“In the trial courts in Tallahassee, state and federal, we typically lose if there’s a political component to it, but then in the appeals court, we almost always win,” DeSantis said last week.
The governor probably wanted to imply that higher court judges show more respect for the rule of law than trial judges. Instead, he seemed to admit that politics favors his side in appellate courts stocked with conservatives.
In any event, political consultant Donner said it wouldn’t matter to DeSantis and the Republican Legislature if they lost every culture war legal contest. They pursue their political agenda, undeterred.
“They don’t care if they get bitch-slapped in court from sunrise to sunset, from Panhandle to Key West,” Donner said. “They just don’t care.”