Ron DeSantis has no respect for the rule of law

Now the Florida governor is facing real problems — and potential legal jeopardy — over his reckless political stunt

Published July 1, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis | Venezuelan migrants gather at the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis | Venezuelan migrants gather at the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Ron DeSantis has some real problems. No, we are not referring to the fact that he trails Donald Trump in the polls or to his awkwardness as a retail politician. Far more concerning are the criminal referrals and investigations surrounding the DeSantis administration's relocation of migrants from Texas to Massachusetts and California—criminal investigations in which the Florida governor may have, through his own boasts, implicated himself.  

Last September, a group of 48 mostly Venezuelan migrants who had surrendered themselves to immigration officials upon crossing the border—many reportedly seeking asylum—were put on planes and flown from Texas to Martha's Vineyard at the behest and expense of the DeSantis administration. It is alleged that the migrants were lured onto the flights with false promises of employment, housing, educational opportunities and other assistance. They were apparently provided with official-looking materials such as a fake agency brochure that created the false impression that the trip was part of the normal immigration process.

The stunt was arguably criminal, and at least some of those involved appear to have been referred for prosecution by Texas law enforcement.

Of course, it was no such thing. To the contrary, it was a part of a political stunt engineered by Florida officials, evidently so that DeSantis could demagogue on immigration policy, which remains red meat for the MAGA base. We can infer that from the fact that DeSantis has repeatedly bragged about these events, making them a staple of his stump speeches, and has tried to justify the $1.5 million price tag paid by Florida taxpayers for the migrant flights and the $12 million line item in Florida's 2023 budget.

Indeed, some of DeSantis' conduct, as well as that of his minions, is disturbingly reminiscent of the tactics of the various autocrats from whom Florida constituents and their families have fled. That includes the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. The Venezuelan victims of the DeSantis administration's deception are fleeing persecution by Maduro, a left-wing despot who embraces Marxist ideology to support suppression of free speech and the imprisonment and torture of political opponents. The United States has long offered asylum to people fleeing communist and other authoritarian regimes.

Republican politicians in the past were often the first to welcome victims of leftist authoritarianism to America, and DeSantis' home state has many residents, now American citizens, who fled Cuba. Federal law specifies how immigration authorities must handle migrants seeking asylum. No state government official, including DeSantis, has a right to undermine that law or the immigration process, much less to do so through unlawfully restraining migrants or any other crime.

Let's set aside the cruelty of exploiting vulnerable immigrants for political purposes. Worse still, the stunt was arguably criminal, and at least some of those involved appear to have been referred for prosecution by Texas law enforcement.

As one author of this article noted when the story first broke, Texas law criminalizes "unlawful restraint:" intentionally restricting a person's movement or moving them from one place to another without consent. The law expressly says that there is no consent where there was deception (as well as force or intimidation). DeSantis has said that the migrants went voluntarily, but this is hardly a defense if they were deceived in any significant way—such as about where they were going, by whom, for what purpose, and what would be awaiting them.

Texas also criminalizes the exploitation of children and the elderly, defined as illegal or improperly using someone for monetary or personal benefit. Children and elderly people were reportedly on board the flight to Martha's Vineyard, and the stunt certainly benefited DeSantis by gaining him media exposure. There was likely a fundraising benefit as well; DeSantis reportedly told top party donors about the Martha's Vineyard relocation before it happened and has used it to solicit campaign contributions.

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There are other potential criminal violations emanating from this incident as well, both state and federal. Those range from the fraudulent use of personal information to human trafficking. After facts about the Martha's Vineyard trip started to emerge, the sheriff of Bexar County, Texas, Javier Salazar announced a criminal investigation into the matter. (The flights to Martha's Vineyard left from San Antonio, in Salazar's jurisdiction.) Recently, Sheriff Salazar disclosed that his agency had concluded its investigation and referred the case to the local prosecutor's office for charges to be filed. At this time, it is not publicly known whom he may have named or on charges, although state felony and misdemeanor unlawful restraint is said to be among them.

After several years of a Trump presidency and its aftermath, drenched in scandals, criminal prosecutions and investigations, a critically important question is whether our nation is ready to move on from leaders who attack the rule of law.

Salazar hasn't indicated that he's likely to charge DeSantis, and his office earlier said it would only consider charges against those who were physically present in the jurisdiction, which DeSantis was not. However, under Texas law, charges against the governor should not be ruled out. Under Article 13.13 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, a defendant can be charged with conspiracy "in the county where the [conspiratorial] agreement was to be executed." Since the object of the conspiracy was apparently to deceive the migrants in Bexar County, DeSantis could be charged there, regardless of where DeSantis reached the conspiratorial agreement. Whether or not the sheriff has specifically named DeSantis, prosecutors should investigate him.

As if all that were not bad enough, news of Salazar's criminal referral came in close proximity to news of additional possible crimes implicating DeSantis. The California attorney general's office is investigating the case of 36 migrants who were recently abandoned outside a church building in Sacramento after being transported on two flights from El Paso. After California Attorney General Rob Bonta said that evidence suggested that Florida officials were responsible and promised to aggressively investigate what he called the "morally bankrupt" incident, Florida authorities acknowledged responsibility. California's false imprisonment statute is similar to Texas's unlawful restraint law and also can be either a misdemeanor or felony. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has raised questions about kidnapping, a more serious felony defined as moving someone through force or fear. Florida officials countered that the relocations were voluntary and that the migrants had provided consent verbally and in writing.

Legal analysts immediately began to question whether or not criminal charges could be brought — and might extend to DeSantis. He did little to distance himself from the issue, declaring on a trip to the Arizona-Mexico border that "sanctuary jurisdictions" in states like Massachusetts and California were part of the reason America has this "problem" and saying, "When they have to deal with some of the fruits of that they all of a sudden become very, very upset about that." DeSantis also said his administration's handling of the migrants "had been debated" and "vetted" by Florida legislators who had agreed to set aside millions for the program.

The California investigation is in a much earlier stage than the one in Texas; there is plenty of time for either investigation to determine DeSantis' culpability, if any. These new revelations and remarks highlight the need for prosecutors to closely scrutinize the Florida governor's role.

DeSantis has emerged as a serious challenger to Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, based largely on championing culture-war tactics that strain, or in some cases violate, the rule of law. Quite apart from the migrant scandals, courts have already thrown out many of his signature laws as unconstitutional: dictating how race is discussed in school, telling social media companies what they can and cannot say, and criminalizing peaceful protest. A court found his suspension of a twice-elected prosecutor to be politically motivated, in violation of federal and state law. And DeSantis' war with Disney after the entertainment giant criticized the "Don't Say Gay" law has been characterized by that company as a "targeted campaign of government retaliation orchestrated – as punishment for Disney's protected speech."

After several years of a Trump presidency and its aftermath, drenched in scandals, criminal prosecutions and investigations, a critically important question is whether our nation is ready to move on from leaders who attack the rule of law. As it concerns Ron DeSantis, that question should be answered by prosecutors in Texas or California — and by voters across America.

By Norman Eisen

Norman Eisen served as White House ethics czar and ambassador to the Czech Republic under President Barack Obama, then as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in 2019–20, including during the first impeachment and trial of President Donald Trump.

MORE FROM Norman Eisen

By Richard Painter

Richard W. Painter is the S. Walter Richey Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Minnesota Law School. From 2005 to 2007 he was associate counsel to the president and chief White House ethics lawyer. He was one of the reporters for the recently completed American Law institute Principles of Government Ethics. Follow him at @RWPUSA.

MORE FROM Richard Painter

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Commentary Donald Trump Immigration Martha's Vineyard Migrants Republicans Ron Desantis