Attorneys argue that Florida law discriminates against Chinese nationals trying to buy homes

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An attorney asked a federal appeals court on Friday to block a controversial Florida law signed last year that restricts Chinese citizens from buying real estate in much of the state, calling it discriminatory and a violation of the federal government's supremacy in deciding foreign affairs.

Attorney Ashley Gorski, representing four Chinese nationals who live in the state, told a three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that “Florida is unlawfully restricting housing for Chinese people.” The law bars Chinese nationals and citizens from other countries that Florida sees as a threat from buying property near military installations and other “critical infrastructure.”

She compared it to long-overturned laws from the early 20th century that barred Chinese from buying property.

“It is singling out people from particular countries in a way that is anathema to the equal protection guarantees that now exist,” Gorski told the court.

But Nathan Forrester, the attorney representing the state, told judges Charles Wilson, Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa that the law lines up with the Biden administration's national security concerns, including threats posed by the Chinese government.

“It is not about race,” Forrester said. “The concern is about the Chinese government, and that is what this law is designed to do. The concern is the manipulation of the Chinese government.”

This case comes nearly a year after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the law, which prohibits citizens of China and some other countries from purchasing property in large swaths of Florida. It applies to properties within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of military installations and other critical infrastructure. The law also applies to agricultural land.

At the time, DeSantis called China the country’s “greatest geopolitical threat” and said the law was taking a stand against the Chinese Communist Party, a frequent target in his failed attempt to land the Republican presidential nomination. The law also affects citizens of Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Russia and North Korea. However, Chinese citizens and anybody selling property to them face the harshest penalties.

Luck and Lagoa both served on the Florida Supreme Court in 2019 after being appointed by DeSantis. Later that year, Luck and Lagoa were appointed to the federal court by then-President Donald Trump. Wilson was appointed to the court in 1999 by then-President Bill Clinton.

Throughout the arguments, Luck expressed skepticism of whether Gorski's clients had standing to bring the lawsuit, asking how they specifically had been harmed.

Gorski replied that the law prevents Chinese citizens from getting home mortgages in Florida and that it declares “some kind of economic war" against China. She said it could have significant foreign policy implications.

“Congress vested only the president with the authority to prohibit a transaction because it is a major decision with significant foreign policy implications," she said.

But Luck pushed back, saying the state used U.S. policy as its guidepost in drafting the law. “Florida took it from what the federal was doing and piggybacked,” he said.

Forrester noted that the Biden administration didn’t file a brief in support of Gorski's clients.

Wilson pointed out that Florida has nearly two dozen military bases and that “critical infrastructure” is a broad term. He asked Forrester whether those restrictions would leave any place in Florida that someone from the barred countries could buy property. Forrester said maps were still being prepared.

In the original complaint filed to the Tallahassee district court last May, the attorneys representing Yifan Shen, Zhiming Xu, Xinxi Wang and Yongxin Liu argued the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection and due process clauses by casting "a cloud of suspicion over anyone of Chinese descent who seeks to buy property in Florida.”

But U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, a Trump appointee, refused to block the law, saying the Chinese nationals had not proved the Legislature was motivated by an “unlawful animus" based on race.


Associated Press writer Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, contributed to this report.