Since Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, took office in 2019 and embarked on his culture wars, lawsuits from various communities whose rights have been violated have been stacking up against the far-right Republican.
As DeSantis fights the lawsuits with what critics have described as a blank check from the state’s supermajority Republican legislature, the mounting legal costs have come heavily at the expense of Florida’s taxpayers.
In recent years, DeSantis’s ultra-conservative legislative agenda has drawn ire from a slew of marginalized communities as well as major corporations including Disney. The so-called “don’t say gay” bill, abortion bans and prohibition of African American studies are just a few of DeSantis’s many extremist policies that have been met with costly lawsuits in a state where residents are already struggling with costs of living.
“The list of legal challenges precipitating from DeSantis’s unconstitutional laws is endless,” the Democratic state senator Lori Berman said.
“We’ve seen Floridians rightly sue many if not all of the governor’s legislative priorities, including laws that restrict drag shows for kids, prohibit Chinese citizens from owning homes and land in Florida, suppress young and Black and brown voters, ban gender-affirming care and threaten supportive parents with state custody of their children, and of course, all the retaliatory legislation waged against Disney for coming out in support of the LGBTQ+ community,” she said.
As a result of the mounting lawsuits against DeSantis, the governor’s legal costs, which the Miami Herald reported last December amounted to at least $16.7m, have been soaring.
In DeSantis’s legal fight against Disney following the corporation’s condemnation of his anti-LGBTQ+ laws, it is going to cost the governor and his handpicked board nearly $1,300 per hour in legal fees as they look into how the corporation discovered a loophole in DeSantis’s plan to acquire governing rights over Disney World, Insider reports.
“Disney is a perfect example. It doesn’t hurt any Floridians. There is nothing. It’s creating a legal issue out of nowhere and now Disney sued so they have to respond and that is going to cost taxpayers’ money. The whole Disney case is just because of DeSantis’s ego and his hurt feelings,” the Democratic state senator Tina Polsky said.
“Taxpayers are paying to foot the bills to pass unconstitutional bills and to keep up with his petty vengeance,” she said, adding: “I don’t think they’re aware at all … They’re too brainwashed at this point that they wouldn’t even care.”
Meanwhile, in another case covered by the Orlando Sentinel, DeSantis’s administration has turned to the elite conservative Washington DC-based law firm Cooper & Kirk to defend the governor against his slew of “anti-woke” laws. The firm’s lawyers charge $725 hourly, according to contracts reviewed by Orlando Sentinel. As of June 2022, the state authorized nearly $2.8m for legal services from just Cooper & Kirk alone, the outlet reports.
With mounting taxpayer-funded legal costs against DeSantis’s legislative agenda, critics ranging from civil rights organizations to the state’s Democratic lawmakers have lambasted DeSantis’s policies as unconstitutional and mere political stunts designed to propel him to the frontlines of the GOP primary.
“DeSantis went to Harvard for his [law degree]. This is someone who should understand the constraints placed on him and the state by the United States constitution and the Florida constitution. He knows those constraints, but he doesn’t care. His goal is to intentionally pass unconstitutional laws and set up legal challenges in order for the conservative supreme court to overturn long-held protections,” Berman said.
Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, echoed similar sentiments, comparing DeSantis to his main competition and current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, both of whom he said are cut “from the same cloth”.
“Ron DeSantis is a Harvard law school graduate. He is a lawyer. Whereas Donald Trump at least could make the argument, ‘I’m just the layperson, I don’t know’ if … something is deemed illegal or unconstitutional … DeSantis does not have that defense,” Jarvis said.
Nevertheless, DeSantis appears unfazed.
“DeSantis knows very well that … what he is doing is unconstitutional and illegal … Lawyers by training are very cautious so this is quite remarkable to have a lawyer-politician who not only knows better, but does not care,” said Jarvis.
To DeSantis, it does not matter whether he wins or loses the legal battles as he knows he “ultimately controls the Florida supreme court”, according to Jarvis.
“He is playing a ‘heads, I win, tails, you lose’ game. If he gets one of these crazy policies passed and they’re challenged and the court upholds him … he can say to the press and to the public, ‘I was right and the proof is in the pudding because the courts agreed with me,’” he explained.
“But even better for DeSantis when they rule against him … DeSantis is able to stand up and say, ‘These crazy judges want our children to watch drag shows, they want our children to be taught to be gay, they want Disney to be this terrible company. That’s why you need a strong governor and why you will benefit from having me as president because I will make sure to get rid of these judges and replace them with judges that have traditional American morals,’” Jarvis added.
As DeSantis continues to fight his costly legal battles, the state’s supermajority Republican legislature appears to encourage him wholly.
“We’re in a litigious society,” the state senate president, Kathleen Passidomo, told the Tallahassee Democrat while the senate budget chair, Doug Broxson, told the outlet: “We want the governor to be in a comfortable position to speak his mind.”
With Republicans rushing to DeSantis’s defense, perhaps the most glaring example of the legislature’s endorsement of his legal wars is the $16m incorporated into the state’s $117bn budget to be used exclusively for his litigation expenses.
Speaking to the Guardian, the state’s Democratic house leader, Fentrice Driskell, called the budget a “carte blanche” from Republicans and the result of zero accountability.
“The legislature is supposed to be a check on executive power. By giving him a carte blanche to go and fight these wars in court, it’s basically just saying that there are no checks and balances when it comes to the state government in Florida,” said Driskell.
“It’s a waste … They are just allowing this single person to impose his will on the state of Florida and they’re willing to waste taxpayer dollars to do it,” she said, adding: “Most Floridians can’t afford their rent and property insurance rates are through the roof. We could have redirected that money towards affordable housing.”
Driskell went on to describe Medicaid iBudget Florida, a waiver that provides disabled Floridians with access to certain services and which currently has a waitlist of more than 22,000 residents.
“It’s very difficult for them to get off that waitlist because the Republicans underfund Medicaid. We could put that money towards funding the waitlist and getting people off of it. I think there’s only $2m that was put in the budget for that this year. If we added the $16m that was added for these culture wars, my goodness, that’s $18m. Presumably we could help get nine times more people off of the waitlist,” said Driskell.
As DeSantis remains embroiled in his legal woes at the expense of Florida taxpayers, there is perhaps a single group of people that have benefited the most out of all the legal drama, Jarvis told the Guardian.
“The lawyers who got that $16.7m, that’s money from heaven. That’s money that fell into their laps … Anytime there’s a loser, and the loser here is the Florida taxpayer, there is a winner. The winners here are the lawyers who are collecting those enormous fees. The more that plaintiffs file lawsuits and the more they fight these crazy policies, you know that’s just money in the bank for these lawyers,” Jarvis said.
“DeSantis has been God’s gift to lawyers,” he added.