An elected Florida prosecutor who was removed from office by Governor Ron DeSantis because of his positions on abortion and transgender rights filed suit Wednesday to get his job back, saying the Republican leader violated his First Amendment rights.
DeSantis said he suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren this month for signing a national pledge to not prosecute women and doctors for violating state abortion laws or families seeking treatments for transgender minors.
“If the governor’s allowed to do this, what’s left of democracy? If the governor’s allowed to retaliate against me for speaking out, what’s left of the First Amendment,” Warren asked at a news conference in Tallahassee, Florida on Wednesday.
The lawsuit alleged that DeSantis did not identify any actual conduct involving criminal activity that would warrant a suspension and said the governor is punishing Warren for voicing positions that DeSantis opposed.
In June, Warren signed on to a statement by dozens of prosecutors across the country pledging to “refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide or support abortions”.
After the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, a previous decision that established the constitutional right to an abortion, pro-abortion rights elected officials across the country looked for ways to protect what they see as an essential right.
In the US criminal justice system, prosecutors have substantial discretion to decide what types of crimes to focus their enforcement efforts on, and some have said that using their limited resources to crack down on people pursuing abortions is not in the public interest.
DeSantis, criticised by Democrats for signing abortion restrictions and bills widely criticised as anti-LGBTQ into law, held a campaign-like event to announce Warren’s suspension where supporters cheered the decision.
Now seeking re-election in November and positioning himself as a potential 2024 presidential candidate, the governor cited Warren’s “neglect of duty” and other alleged violations.
“State Attorneys have a duty to enforce the law, not ignore laws they don’t like. Placing one’s personal conception of ‘social justice’ above the rule of law is a dereliction of duty,” the governor said on Twitter on August 5.
State Attorneys have a duty to enforce the law, not ignore laws they don’t like.
Placing one’s personal conception of “social justice” above the rule of law is a dereliction of duty. pic.twitter.com/kp7CaZEI8M
— Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) August 5, 2022
Warren, who was elected in 2016 by Tampa-area voters and re-elected in 2020, said the governor is overturning the will of the people who put him in office.
“The governor has attacked our democracy and it should worry everyone,” Warren told reporters. “If the governor’s attempt to unilaterally overturn an election is allowed to stand, it threatens to undermine the integrity and outcome of elections across our state for years to come.”
Warren described the pledge circulated by prosecutors around the country as “a value statement”, not a definitive decision on how he might handle any particular case. He also noted that Florida’s new ban on abortions after 15 weeks of gestation has been ruled unconstitutional, and that the state does not even have a law against hormone treatments for transgender minors.
Warren’s lawsuit says the suspension was retaliatory after he opposed the governor on several issues, including DeSantis’ efforts to deny the restoration of voting rights for felons and create new crimes for public protests in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the new abortion restrictions.
“Of course, DeSantis is free to express his views and his disagreements with Warren as often as he likes. Indeed, the Federal Constitution ensures that he is,” the suit says. “DeSantis went too far.”
The suit said Warren has an obligation to voters to say where he stands on such issues, and that as a prosecutor, he has the right to decide how the limited resources he has should be used to prosecute crimes. That priority should be on public safety, it said.
“The First Amendment protects the right of elected officials to speak out on matters of public controversy, and in fact it does so because it’s so important that the voters who choose these elected officials know where they stand on these issues,” Jean-Jacques Cabou, a lawyer for Warren, said in a phone interview.
Democrats have criticised the suspension in strong terms, labelling it as a political attack against an elected official who dared to challenge DeSantis. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat and leader-designate of the Florida House Democratic Caucus, said that Warren had been removed because he refused to be “a foot soldier in Ron DeSantis’ extremist agenda” after the decision was announced in early August.
Warren’s suspension is now an issue in the governor’s race as Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, the state’s only statewide-elected Democrat, and Democratic US Representative Charlie Crist enter the final week of the primary to see who will challenge DeSantis.
“For this governor to weaponise his office and remove a state attorney — a prosecutor — who has prosecutorial discretion over which cases he brings forward and which he doesn’t, this is the overreaching and overstepping of this governor,” Fried said at a campaign event Tuesday night. “It is the most dangerous thing to our democracy that we have seen.”