MIAMI (AP) -- The state of Florida on Thursday urged a panel of skeptical federal appeals judges to allow enforcement of a law that prohibits companies from bidding on state and local government contracts if they also do business in Cuba or Syria.
The law, blocked by a federal district judge before it was to go into effect last year, was challenged by Coral Gables-based Odebrecht Construction Inc., a subsidiary of a Brazilian conglomerate that has a separate unit working on an expansion project at Cuba's port of Mariel. Odebrecht says the law will prevent it from bidding on billions of dollars' in state and local projects in Florida.
An attorney for the state Department of Transportation urged the three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to focus on whether Odebrecht would suffer any actual financial harm because of the law. The lawyer, Gregory Costas, said Odebrecht hadn't bid on a state transportation project in 15 years.
But Odebrecht attorney James Moye said the company planned to submit numerous state transportation bids in the future, noting that the company recently won a bid for a multimillion-dollar runway expansion at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Among its notable past projects are the American Airlines Arena that is home to the NBA's Miami Heat, the Nassau Sound Bridge in Jacksonville and Florida International University's new football stadium.
"If you can't bid work, you're out of business," Moye said. "That's their lifeblood."
Two of the judges noted that it wasn't just about state transportation projects, but a ban on work for any government entity in the state for companies with Cuban or Syrian ties.
"The legislation goes much farther than the (transportation) department, right?" asked Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus. "The statute sweeps very broadly."
When he declared the law unconstitutional last June, U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore said it ran afoul of the federal government's sole power to direct U.S. foreign policy. The appeals judges noted that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 2000 case known as Crosby, struck down a Massachusetts law prohibiting that state from dealing with companies that did business in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
"The Supreme Court said you can't do that," Marcus said. "How do you distinguish Crosby, if you can, from this case?"
Costas replied that the Massachusetts law was different than Florida's because it was enacted before Congress established its own sanctions against Myanmar, but Marcus said it still seemed the Florida law amounted to a "collision" with U.S. policy toward Cuba.
The law's constitutionality has long been in doubt. Republican Gov. Rick Scott issued a statement after signing the measure in May 2012 that it would pass muster only if Congress passed a law and the president signed it allowing states to impose their own sanctions on foreign governments. That caused an uproar in the South Florida's Cuban-American community, leading Scott to clarify that he supported the Florida law and would defend it in court.
The U.S. has for decades had a number of economic sanctions against the communist Cuban government, which along with Syria is listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The court did not indicate when it would rule.
Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Miamicurt