July 15, 2024


Law for politics

Ron DeSantis’s Ousting of Elected Official Sets a Dangerous Precedent

Ron DeSantis’s Ousting of Elected Official Sets a Dangerous Precedent

In an early August press conference, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered a shocking announcement: He was abruptly suspending Andrew Warren, the elected chief prosecutor for Hillsborough County (Tampa) and an outspoken critic of the governor. Warren, who was given no warning, was escorted from his office by an armed deputy.

In an accompanying executive order, DeSantis accused Warren of “incompetence and willful defiance of his duties.” Although county prosecutors in Florida are elected and do not answer to the governor, DeSantis pointed to a statute in the Florida State Constitution that allows a governor to suspend elected officials “for reasons of misfeasance, malfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony.” Historically, this power has almost exclusively been used to remove officials charged with felonies.

To support his claims, the governor pointed to two joint statements signed by Warren and other prosecutors around the country: a June 2022 pledge not to use their offices’ “limited resources” to prosecute those who seek or provide abortion care, and a 2021 pledge not to criminalize transgender people or gender-affirming health care. DeSantis also noted a policy Warren implemented against bringing charges in cases that stem from police stops of pedestrians and cyclists; this was intended to end the high number of “biking while Black” bike-stop charges in Tampa.

All three of Warren’s opinions cited by DeSantis — his support for access to legal abortion, the right to gender-affirming care and reducing unnecessary and racist policing — stand in direct opposition to the governor’s political goals. The two public officials have clashed over these and other issues repeatedly over the past several years.

After removing Warren from his elected office, DeSantis immediately appointed Susan Lopez as his replacement, a conservative Hillsborough County judge and member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization that believes in a literal interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and whose membership includes all six Republicans on the Supreme Court. Lopez has already repealed some of Warren’s reforms, including the bike-stop policy.

But Warren is not going down without a fight. In an ongoing federal lawsuit seeking his reinstatement, he argues that his suspension violates his First Amendment rights and oversteps the powers granted to DeSantis under the Florida Constitution. The current suit has since been limited to the First Amendment question, which is within the realm of federal court. A trial is set for November 29.

In his complaint, Warren points out that DeSantis has not identified a single case that he declined to prosecute: His office had not received any cases regarding abortion, and Florida does not currently criminalize transgender medical care.

Warren also argues that his removal violates the will of Tampa voters who elected him in 2016 and 2020. These voters were further disenfranchised when his replacement was handpicked by DeSantis, who lost Hillsborough County by a nine-point margin in the last gubernatorial election.

“If DeSantis can arbitrarily suspend an elected official without one shred of evidence they have done anything wrong, how far will he go to punish anyone else who disagrees with him?” Warren wrote in an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times. “This abuse of power should shock every business owner, teacher, doctor, public servant — and every voter.”

So far, Warren has already received one favorable ruling: When DeSantis moved for dismissal, arguing that First Amendment protections do not apply, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle disagreed, allowing the case to move forward.

Meanwhile, the Florida State Senate, which is responsible for deciding whether to reinstate or permanently remove suspended officials, has halted hearings regarding Warren’s case, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

DeSantis Uses His Power to Stifle Dissent

“It’s a very unusual case. And it’s a problematic case,” Bruce Green, director of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham University School of Law, told Truthout. Green is a lead signatory on one of several amicus briefs filed in support of Warren. Green’s brief was signed by 115 legal scholars whose work focuses on legal ethics, professional responsibility and criminal procedure.

“The concern is that prosecutors are going to have trouble, at least in Florida, exercising the independent, professional judgment and discretion that they were elected to exercise,” said Green. “Because they have a governor who is looking over their shoulder, and is potentially going to remove them from office if he doesn’t like the way they’re making decisions. And it certainly chills them from being candid with their electorates and with the public about how they view things.”

The brief warns that Warren’s suspension “runs counter to professional standards of conduct … usurps the will and power of the electorate, and eviscerates the carefully crafted separation of powers erected in the Florida Constitution.”

Another amicus brief in support of Warren was filed by a group of scholars of the Florida State Constitution. They note the dangerous precedent that Warren’s removal could set for voting rights if allowed to stand, warning: “If Governors were permitted to suspend State Attorneys because of their prosecutorial priorities and replace them with attorneys whose priorities mirror their own, Florida’s electoral process for the office of State Attorney — and potentially all elected state officers — would be virtually meaningless.”

That brief’s signatories include members of a committee that approved revisions to the state constitution in 1997-1998, including the constitutional statute DeSantis used to justify the suspension. They note that none of DeSantis’s claims meet the legal definition of “neglect of duty” or “incompetence.”

In fact, Warren argues his competency and fulfillment of duty had nothing to do with his suspension. Instead, he has repeatedly accused DeSantis of removing him as an attention-grabbing, partisan performance. In a statement, the ousted prosecutor wrote: “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.”

In an interview with Bolts magazine, Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat, agreed, calling Warren’s suspension “a fascist approach to governing, if you can even call it governing.”

The evening before the suspension, DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, teased the announcement in a tweet, suggesting that the real intent was to stir up controversy: “MAJOR announcement tomorrow morning from @GovRonDeSantis. Prepare for the liberal media meltdown of the year. Everyone get some rest tonight.”

In recent years, Warren has increasingly criticized or attempted to mitigate DeSantis’s policies at the local level.

In 2017, for example, Floridians overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative that restored voting rights to most people convicted of felonies after completion of their sentence. The following year, the governor signed a bill harshly limiting the initiative’s scope by requiring people to pay all court fines and fees before voting. (DeSantis is currently going even further by prosecuting Florida citizens for accidentally voting before they were eligible.) In 2019, Warren’s office responded by setting up a process to help residents apply to have their debts waived for voting purposes.

Then in March and April 2020, Warren started to bring a case against an evangelical pastor who was defying social distancing rules to hold crowded megachurch services in Tampa. DeSantis intervened by abruptly adding an exception for church services in the statewide “safer-at-home order,” which superseded any local orders. Warren criticized the action as “weak and spineless.”

And in 2021, Warren spoke out against DeSantis’s so-called anti-rioting bill,” which created a new, broad, vague definition of rioting that could more easily be used to punish nonviolent participants. The bill denied bail for people arrested at a “riot,” gave drivers civil immunity for running over protesters, and made it more difficult for cities to reduce police funding. In response, Warren said the law “tears a couple corners off the Constitution.” The bill has also been criticized by the United Nations. (Although DeSantis signed the bill into law in August 2021, a federal judge halted major parts, including the rioting definition, earlier this year, as a lawsuit is ongoing.)

A recent article in the Orlando Sentinel pointed out yet another indication that Warren’s suspension was politically motivated: Elected sheriffs throughout the state have pledged not to enforce gun control measures, without receiving any criticism from DeSantis — let alone suspensions for “neglect of duty.”

And Warren’s ouster fits with DeSantis’s history of punishing people who disagree with his politics.

Just weeks after Warren’s suspension, DeSantis suspended and replaced four school board members from Broward County, the sixth-largest school district in the nation and the second-largest in Florida.

In this instance, DeSantis was responding to the results of a grand jury investigation he had initiated into school safety issues following the 2018 Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The grand jury recommended that the school board members be removed for “incompetence and neglect of duty.” But instead of allowing the vacated seats to go up for general election, DeSantis once again took the opportunity to replace the ousted members, all of whom were Democratic women, with four Republican men of his own choosing.

DeSantis has gone after others who disagree with him. In April, he and GOP legislators punished Disney for speaking out against the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law banning discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in schools. His department of health also suspended an Orange County health officer in January after he sent an email encouraging his staff to get vaccinated.

And back in 2019, DeSantis suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, a Democrat, for the failings of his deputies in responding to the Parkland school shooting. Although a special master appointed by the State Senate concluded there was not enough evidence to support Israel’s suspension, the Republican-controlled State Senate confirmed his removal anyway.

Reform-Minded Prosecutors Face Retaliation

Since taking office in 2016, Warren implemented policies that decreased the number of children tried as adults, gave judges more flexibility to waive excessive fines and fees, established mental health courts and created a Conviction Integrity Unit that has overturned at least 18 wrongful convictions.

After a 2016 Department of Justice investigation found that Black people made up 26 percent of the Tampa population and 73 percent of cyclists stopped by Tampa police, Warren’s office stopped bringing charges for offenses that resulted from non-criminal bike and pedestrian stops (such as “resisting without violence” charges).

These policies seem to have been popular in Hillsborough County; Warren easily beat his challenger for reelection in 2020.

But The Marshall Project outlined a concerning trend earlier this year, noting that “from Virginia to Missouri to Texas, conservatives have backed bills allowing the state to take over cases local district attorneys choose not to pursue, undermining the ability of elected prosecutors to carry out reforms that led voters to support them in the first place.”

By removing Warren directly, DeSantis has taken this attack to a new level. His appointed replacement, Susan Lopez, immediately began rolling back Warren’s reforms, including the bike-stop policy. She also reversed his decision to not pursue the death penalty in a pending murder case.

For now, Warren’s chances of reinstatement hang on the federal lawsuit. Other chief prosecutors and elected officials throughout Florida will be watching closely.

“Governors do not have the authority to disregard the autonomy and independence of prosecutors, nor are they entitled to undermine the will of the voters,” argued dozens of dozens of former judges and law enforcement officials, including three retired Florida Supreme Court justices, in yet another amicus brief in support of Warren’s lawsuit.

“Allowing governors to do so would upset the careful balance of roles and responsibilities delegated to local as well as state actors by state constitution, delegitimize our justice system, and erode public confidence in the operation of government and the integrity of the election process.”