Democratic House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell speaking at a press conference in Tampa on Sept. 5, 2023. Former Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren and State Democratic Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby are to the left of Driskell. Former state Dem. Rep Sean Shaw is to her right (Photo credit: Mitch Perry)
A month after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended State Attorney Monique Worrell of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, Florida Democratic state lawmakers held press conferences in Orlando, Miami, and Tampa on Tuesday calling that decision an attack on direct democracy.
DeSantis suspension of Worrell last month for allegedly “neglecting her duty to faithfully prosecute crimes in her jurisdiction,” marked the second time during the past year that he has unilaterally thrown out of office a democratically elected state attorney, following his ousting of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren in 2022.
In both cases, the state attorneys were elected Democrats whom DeSantis replaced with Republicans, although the governor cited more specific criminal policies in justifying his suspension of Worrell. In the case of Warren, DeSantis said his removal was motivated partly because of joint statements he made that indicated that he would not prosecute certain cases regarding abortion or transgender health care.
The governor’s decision to oust Warren was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge earlier this year, but the judge in that case — U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee — ultimately ruled that he lacked authority to reinstate Warren. The Florida Supreme Court turned down Warren’s appeal but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is still considering the matter. The prosecutors also could ask the Florida Senate to reinstate them.
“Ron DeSantis does not believe in the rule of law. Period,” Warren during at a press conference in a law firm’s offices in Tampa’s Ybor City Tuesday morning. “He has shown remarkable disdain for the law that he is sworn to uphold. And for the rights and the freedoms that’s he’s sworn to protect. And the suspension of State Attorney Worrell is just the latest example of his attacking our democracy.”
In his ruling handed down in January, Judge Hinkle wrote that the “governor violated the First Amendment by considering Mr. Warren’s speech on matters of public concern.” Fentrice Driskell, the Democratic House Minority Leader, said that after being chastised by a federal judge “most people” wouldn’t attempt to make such a move for a second time.
“But not this governor,” she said. “He has been so emboldened that he has done this again to State Attorney Monique Worrell, the only Black female state attorney elected in a state of 22 million people. It is wrong. It is immoral, and we are here today to call on the conscience of good men and women to stand up and to speak out about this injustice.”
Sean Shaw, a former member of the Florida House and the Democratic Party’s candidate for attorney general in 2018, blasted attorneys and other members of the legal establishment in Florida for not speaking out against the suspensions of both Warren and now Worrell.
“If you are an organization of lawyers, and you don’t have a damned word to say about the removal of two state attorneys, you ought to look at your charter and figure out why you exist,” Shaw said.
“If you are a lawyer who thinks that being on the disciplinary committee or being on the construction law board by an appointment by the governor is more important than two state attorneys being removed, you oughta really look in the mirror and figure out why you got into the practice of law to start with. And that’s what we’re dealing with here — we’re not only acting with the bad actor who is DeSantis.”
Shaw is son of the late Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw. He invoked his father’s name in criticizing those afraid to call out the governor’s actions.
“My dad didn’t sit in Jacksonville and say, ‘You know what? This is too big of a deal, and I don’t want to get involved because I want to make sure that I remain president of this or president of that.’ That’s not how this state oughta work. That is certainly not how our forefathers acted, and I think that they’d be ashamed at the silence of some us in the community today.”
Worrell has said she is still considering whether to sue to get her job back, but she also announced on the day of her suspension that she would run for her job again in 2024.
‘Enemy of the state’
Warren has yet to announce whether he will file to run against the woman DeSantis appointed as his successor in Hillsborough County, Republican Susan Lopez. He said today was not the time to discuss that decision but did speak about what the human toll has been like for him since he was removed from his job 13 months ago.
“It’s hard to convey what it feels like to be the enemy of the state,” he said. “To have the job that you were elected to do unlawfully stripped from [you]. To have the government search for any hint of misconduct in your record, even though a court found there is none. To have the governor lie repeatedly about you in his stump speeches and to have his propaganda machine repeat those lies, to the point where threats have been made against my life,” Warren said.
“People talking about harming my kids. This is where we’re at in the state of Florida. And that’s why it’s so important for people to rise above political leanings and to reject the toxic hyperpartisanship that the governor has brought to our state. And to unite around the shared values and freedoms that we all cherish as Floridians and as Americans.”
Democratic state representatives Tracie Davis and Anna Eskamani were scheduled to speak out against Worrell’s suspension at a press conference in Orlando on Tuesday.
The Phoenix reached out to Gov. DeSantis’ office for comment but did not immediately get a response.
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