As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis continues his culture war campaign against abortion providers and members of the LGBT community, prosecutors who choose to defy the governor's edicts may soon find themselves out of a job.
Last Thursday, DeSantis signed an executive order suspending Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, a progressive prosecutor who had previously pledged his office would not prosecute women seeking abortions or pursue criminal charges against those pursuing gender-affirming health care. "State Attorneys have a duty to prosecute crimes as defined in Florida law, not to pick and choose which laws to enforce based on his personal agenda," DeSantis said in a statement.
Warren was first elected in 2016, defeating a longtime Republican incumbent with the support of liberal donor George Soros. Despite clashing with law enforcement over his refusal to prosecute minor offenses, Warren was reelected in 2020. Warren has said he will fight the governor's suspension in court.
Article 4, Section 7 of the Florida Constitution allows the governor to suspend local officials for "malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony" and to appoint a temporary successor. The Florida Senate must approve a permanent removal from office and confirm the governor's replacement appointments.
Previous governors have reserved that power for extreme cases of incompetence and malfeasance. In the last weeks of his governorship, then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, suspended Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, a Democrat, after her office came under fire for its mismanagement of the 2018 midterm elections.
Snipes was the second consecutive Broward elections chief to receive a pink slip from Tallahassee; her predecessor, Miriam Oliphant, had been suspended by then-Gov. Jeb Bush in September 2003 after a task force report investigating her disastrous handling of the 2002 elections* revealed countless administrative failures in the county elections office, including hundreds of uncounted ballots found in filing cabinets and a gravely understaffed office. Neighboring Palm Beach County also saw their elections supervisor, Susan Bucher, receive the boot in January 2019, this time from DeSantis. Snipes and Bucher both resigned from their positions.
DeSantis also suspended embattled Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel early in his tenure, after an investigation into the 2018 Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting found Israel and the Broward Sheriff's Office responded to the massacre with "incompetence" and "negligence." He then appointed Coral Springs Sergeant Gregory Tony as Israel's replacement. The Florida Senate officially removed Israel from office in October 2019.
However, suspending a prosecutor for using their discretion sets a troubling precedent. Many prosecutors across the U.S., including federal prosecutors, prioritize their resources to go after offenders who pose a threat to public safety and civil society. It is simply not possible for prosecutors to devote equal resources to every type of offense.
Even when prosecutors adopt policies that seem political, the governor has less extreme tools for making sure that justice is done. When former Orange-Osceola County State Attorney Aramis Ayala, a Democrat now running for state attorney general, announced that her office would no longer pursue the death penalty, Gov. Scott reassigned 30 murder cases to a different State Attorney, prompting Ayala to sue.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled that Scott's decision to reassign cases from Ayala's office was a legitimate use of the governor's powers. "The executive orders reassigning the death-penalty eligible cases in the Ninth Circuit to King fall well 'within the bounds' of the Governor's 'broad authority,'" the majority opinion explained. DeSantis himself used that same ruling to reassign homicide cases from Ayala's office in 2020. However, neither governor suspended or removed her from her position.
What's more, DeSantis has declined to use his executive authority to suspend sheriffs who refused to enforce gun restrictions. Meanwhile, DeSantis has allowed state education officials to ignore federal anti-discrimination laws designed to protect LGBT students and teachers in Florida public schools.
Many lawmakers have expressed concerns that the suspension encroaches on the separation of powers between the governor and local governments in the state, something they see as contradicting DeSantis' messaging advertising his vision of a "free Florida."
"Removing a duly elected official should be based on egregious actions—not political statements," Tampa Mayor Jane Castor tweeted in response to the governor's executive order. Like many Democrats in the state, she believes that the governor is thwarting the will of voters in her city by suspending Warren. "In a free state, voters should choose their elected officials."
*CORRECTION: Miriam Oliphant was elected as Broward County Supervisor of Elections in November 2000, and the report covered her handling of the 2002 election only.
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