DeSantis suspends elected state prosecutor; cites refusal to enforce abortion, transgender laws

By: - August 4, 2022 12:59 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his suspension of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren during a news conference in Tampa on Aug. 4, 2022. Source: Screenshot/Facebook

Gov. Ron DeSantis has suspended elected Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, accusing him of nullifying state laws through refusal to prosecute violent offenders and to enforce criminal penalties against doctors providing abortions or gender-affirming care.

In Warren’s place, the governor named Hillsborough County Judge Susan Lopez Thursday to serve pending a vote by the Florida Senate about whether to permanently remove Warren from office.

Among other complaints, the governor’s executive order suspending Warren cites his signature on a letter in June 2021 along with other elected prosecutors across the country “to use our discretion and not promote the criminalization of gender-affirming healthcare or transgender people.”

Florida doesn’t have a law doing that but DeSantis has been moving in that direction. The governor also claimed that Warren is on record as refusing to enforce laws against abortion. The state has a 15-week abortion ban in place.

The governor cited a second letter released by the prosecutors in June 2021 expressing “our firm belief that prosecutors have a responsibility to refrain from using limited criminal legal system resources to criminalize personal medical decisions.” The signatories promised to “exercise our well-settled discretion and refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide, or support abortions.”

Warren took a defiant tone in a written statement.

‘Political stunt’

“Today’s political stunt is an illegal overreach that continues a dangerous pattern by Ron DeSantis of using his office to further his own political ambition. It spits in the face of the voters of Hillsborough County who have twice elected me to serve them, not Ron DeSantis,” he said.

Andrew Warren. Credit: Facebook page

“In our community, crime is low, our constitutional rights — including the right to privacy — are being upheld, and the people have the right to elect their own leaders — not have them dictated by an aspiring presidential candidate who has shown time and again he feels accountable to no one.

“Just because the governor violates your rights, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” Warren concluded.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that he was escorted from the building Thursday morning. At mid-afternoon, the state attorney’s office website shunted viewers to a “maintenance mode” page.

“Warren, a Democrat, has been a frequent critic of DeSantis, including calling the governor’s 2021 ‘anti-riot’ legislation a misguided ‘solution in search of a problem’ and questioning the need for an election security force proposed by DeSantis,” the newspaper reported.

Reaction was swift from Democrats and progressive organizations.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, an attorney and a former Republican Attorney General of Florida who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, noted that Warren has twice been elected to his job.

“The way you suspend or change who a state attorney in the state of Florida is an election. It’s the same way you remove a governor who doesn’t understand that he’s supposed to be appropriate and decent and have good judgment. And he has none of the above and we saw it on full display today,” Crist said during a news conference Thursday afternoon.

“We’re fighting for democracy here, friends, and our governor is not on the side of democracy,” Crist added. And he said this about the governor: “He’s a bully. He’s not a good, decent man.”

Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, an attorney and gubernatorial candidate, called the ouster “a politically motivated attack on a universally respected state attorney democratically elected to exercise prosecutorial discretion.

“Ron DeSantis is a pathetic bully. He’s doing this because he wants to be dictator, not a governor of Florida. That’s not how this works, though. This will backfire. We just saw it in Kansas. Florida is a pro-choice, pro-democracy state. If this stands, the people of Florida will put an end to it in November.”

‘Law and order state’

Backing up the governor during his news conference was an array of law enforcement officials including Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco, former Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan (but not sitting Chief Mary O’Connor), and Attorney General Ashley Moody.

Susan Lopez. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Lopez, also on hand, promised to “faithfully execute the duties of this office and to ensure that we are fulfilling its purpose to prosecute crimes and protect the people of Hillsborough County. I will follow the rule of law.”

DeSantis argued he had no choice.

“We really believe that this is a law-and-order state. We are not going to back down from that one inch. We are not going to allow locally elected people to veto what our state has decreed through our legislative process,” the governor said during a news conference at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office packed with political supporters.

“This is important. We’ve seen how this has impacted communities all across the country in a very negative way. And, at the end of the day, when you take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, you must take care that our laws are faithfully executed. And that will start happening in Hillsborough County beginning today,” he added.

Florida statutes say governors may suspend local officials “for malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, habitual drunkenness, incompetence, or permanent inability to perform official duties.”

Prosecutors enjoy discretion in deciding how to prosecute alleged crimes, but that has to be exercised according to the details of each case, not through blanket policies about how to enforce or not enforce certain laws, the governor argued.

Reminded by a reporter that Warren had twice been elected by the voters, DeSantis replied that the prosecutor’s conduct had fallen below the standard demanded by the Florida Constitution.

George Soros

It was not the first time that DeSantis has stripped away offices from local elected officials. In 2019, he suspended Broward County Sheriff Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel over mistakes made by his deputies in responding shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport.

He suspended Okaloosa County School Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson in 2019 for “neglect of duty and incompetence.” He ultimately reinstated her and she immediately resigned. In 2020, he suspended Liberty County Supervisor of Elections Gina Singletary McDowell amid felony charges of fraud and official misconduct.

George Soros. Credit: Niccolò Caranti via Creative Commons

Thursday’s move went beyond the approach U.S. Sen. Rick Scott took while governor in reassigning a murder case away from Orange County state attorney Aramis Ayala in 2019 after she refused to seek the death penalty. She’s running in the Democratic primary for attorney general.

“Having been personally impacted by governor outreach, I know all too well the bad-faith arguments and misinformation that radical extremists use to advance their political agenda and inflict harm on those who disagree with them,” Ayala said in a written statement.

“The suggestion that there was malfeasance or a dereliction of duty by the Hillsborough State Attorney Office is a dictatorial response and attack on the constitutionally protected right of free speech.”

At one point during Thursday’s news conference, DeSantis name-checked George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire who has been demonized by the international right wing and who finances progressive projects, including campaigns of prosecutors who prefer a more measured approach to fighting crime.

“This agenda includes prioritizing the resources of the criminal-justice system to protect people against violent crime. It urges that we treat drug addiction as a disease, not a crime. And it seeks to end the criminalization of poverty and mental illness,” Soros wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Sunday.

“Quite frankly, we can go back and look at some of these elections where all the money is coming in from people that do not live in Florida, uh, and are really trying to push an agenda on the people of Florida. And I don’t think the people of Hillsborough County want to have an agenda that is basically woke where you’re deciding that your view of social justice means certain laws shouldn’t be enforced,” said the governor, who frequently travels out of state to raise money for his reelection and perhaps a campaign for president. The financial disclosures for the Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee for the week ending July 22 show multiple out-of-state gifts in the five- and six-figure range.

Law enforcement complaints

DeSantis said he didn’t talk to Warren before acting. Rather, the suspension was based on talks with law enforcement officials throughout the state about whether they were seeing refusals by prosecutors to prosecute certain offenses. He cited policies including in cities like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.

“And like, 95 percent of it was all right here, in Hillsborough. Everything anyone said was right here. I didn’t hear the same in Duval or Miami-Dade or any of that,” DeSantis said.

Criticism of the move rolled in during the day.

“With his removal of a duly elected Democratic state attorney who refused to enforce Florida’s extreme abortion ban, Ron DeSantis is behaving more like a dictator than ‘America’s Governor.’ Ron DeSantis continues to make it shamefully clear that he will always put partisan politics over the democratic will of the people,” Florida Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Broward County said in a written statement.

Fentrice Driskell, an attorney and incoming leader of the state House Democratic caucus, called it “a shocking political attack.”

Florida State Rep. Fentrice Driskell. Credit: Florida House of Representatives

“Every county prosecutor uses their discretion in handling cases in their communities. Andrew Warren was operating fully within the appropriate discretion of his office, and if the people of Hillsborough County don’t like what he is doing, then we can make our voices heard at the ballot box. We did not need the governor coming down from Tallahassee to punish someone he considers a political enemy. This throws our criminal justice system in Hillsborough County into unnecessary chaos and confusion.”

‘Incredibly hypocritical’

“Also, I find it incredibly hypocritical that the governor says we are a nation of laws not men after he instructed the Legislature to ignore the Voting Rights Act during redistricting, and while his commissioner of education tells school officials to ignore Federal Title IX guidelines. This clearly isn’t about being a government of laws, it’s about being the Kingdom of Ron DeSantis, and no dissent is tolerated.”

“This is a gross political attack on a duly elected state attorney who has publicly stated that he would not follow along with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ extreme anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ agenda. Every prosecutor in the state of Florida uses their discretion in handling cases and Warren was operating fully within the appropriate discretion of his office and if the people of Hillsborough County don’t like what he is doing then they would have voted him out,” Democratic House member Anna Eskamani of Orlando said in her own written statement.

“It’s also important to stress that there are currently no laws in Florida punishing pregnant people or trans parents, so what the governor said today during his announcement is sensational and inaccurate. But good to know that DeSantis thinks women should be arrested for ending their own pregnancies — that’s an important point for the voters to know too.”

“Clearly, DeSantis cares more about his own 2024 presidential ambitions than he does about ‘law and order,’ the Florida Constitution, or election integrity,” Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones said via a written statement. “Andrew Warren was comfortably re-elected in 2020. Why bother having elections if the governor is just going to replace fairly elected prosecutors he disagrees with?

DeSantis did win kudos from Andrew Shirvell, executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn, who said: “Gov. DeSantis’ aggressive action sends the message to other rogue state attorneys throughout Florida that they are duty-bound to enforce all of Florida’s laws — and if they do not, they will find themselves out of a job just like Warren.”

Note: This story was updated Thursday afternoon to include comments from Charlie Crist’s news conference and a written statement from former Orange County State Attorney Aramis Ayala.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.