Lawrence Mower and Emily L. Mahoney
Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday removed Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren from office for what he said was Warren’s disregard for his duty to enforce state laws, including a pledge not to prosecute people receiving an abortion or their doctors performing them.
At a news conference flanked by police from around Tampa Bay, DeSantis said Warren had “put himself publicly above the law” by signing letters saying he would not enforce laws prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors or laws limiting abortion.
Under a clause in the state Constitution, DeSantis suspended Warren, effectively firing him.
“Our government is a government of laws, not a government of men,” DeSantis said.
The suspension, which stunned observers, removed one of the state’s most outspoken prosecutors. Warren, a Democrat, has been a frequent critic of DeSantis, a Republican. He called the 2021 “anti-riot” legislation that DeSantis championed a misguided “solution in search of a problem.” He’s also questioned the need for an election security force that DeSantis has helped create.
On Thursday morning, Warren was escorted out of his office. Later, at an afternoon news conference in the Shumaker law firm’s downtown Tampa office, Warren struck a defiant tone.
“I’m still the duly elected state attorney for Hillsborough County,” he said. Asked if he thinks this was his last act as a public official, he said, simply, “no.”
Warren said he still had not seen the governor’s order and did not say whether he would challenge the action.
He called the governor’s criticisms “pure conjecture and lies,” and alluded to DeSantis having presidential ambitions.
“The governor is trying to overthrow the results of a fair and free election, two of them,” he said. “People need to understand, this isn’t the governor trying to suspend one elected official. This is the governor trying to overthrow democracy here in Hillsborough County.”
He insisted he was “still the duly elected state attorney for Hillsborough County” and accused DeSantis of “trying to overthrow democracy here in Hillsborough County.”
He said he hasn’t had any cases relating to abortion or gender-affirming care brought to his office, and if he did, he would evaluate them on the merits.
He noted that the 15-week abortion ban that DeSantis signed into law this year violated the Florida Supreme Court’s longstanding precedent establishing that Florida’s constitutional right to privacy included the right to an abortion. A judge affirmed that the law violated the constitution, and the Florida Supreme Court has yet to hear the case.
It’s unclear if Warren’s removal from office is permanent. Under Florida law, the Florida Senate must decide whether to reinstate Warren or remove him completely. The Senate must send out a notice of an initial hearing within 90 days, per Senate rules — putting that deadline for Warren’s case just days before Election Day in November. Warren can also choose to fight his removal in court, which could push back that timeline.
DeSantis said Thursday that the decision to remove Warren began when he noticed prosecutors in Los Angeles and San Francisco selectively enforcing crimes. He said he asked his staff to look around Florida “to make sure that that was not going to happen here.”
After his staff spoke with police and prosecutors, Warren’s name repeatedly came up, DeSantis said.
“It all came back to this area here, in the 13th Judicial Circuit in Hillsborough County,” DeSantis said. “And the response that we got was a lot of frustration on the part of law enforcement for criminals being let go and crimes not being prosecuted.”
DeSantis’ order does not cite examples of Warren not prosecuting individual cases. The state has no laws on gender-affirming care that Warren could refuse to prosecute. Instead, DeSantis’ order points to Warren’s public comments on abortion, transgender issues and office policies Warren has adopted.
But Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said at Thursday’s news conference that police have had long-running frustrations with Warren for not prosecuting particular cases.
“I continue to work with my law enforcement counterparts who privately are frustrated with the state attorney, who seems intently focused on empathy for criminals and less interested in pursuing justice for crime victims,” Chronister said.
Chronister’s comments were an abrupt break from what had been a cordial public relationship between the sheriff and state attorney. Though they are from different parties, Warren endorsed Chronister in his 2018 campaign for sheriff, and Chronister trumpeted that endorsement as an example of his bipartisan support in Hillsborough.
Thursday’s news conference included additional criticism of Warren from the heads of law enforcement agencies from neighboring counties, such as Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody spoke in support of the suspension, too.
“Andrew Warren is a fraud,” said former Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan. “This is a terrible day, that the governor had to come and clean up our mess.”
Under the state constitution, a governor can suspend state officials for misfeasance, malfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties or commission of a felony.
DeSantis’ order cites neglect of duty and incompetence as the reason for Warren’s suspension, citing, in part, case law from 1937 in which a Tampa prosecutor was accused of not charging people for gambling offenses.
Warren, the order states, “demonstrated his incompetence and willful defiance of his duties,” citing:
—Warren signing on to a June 2021 “joint statement” with prosecutors around the country “to use our discretion and not promote the criminalization of gender-affirming health care or transgender people.” Although the state has not enacted such criminal laws, “these statements prove that Warren thinks he has authority to defy the Florida Legislature,” DeSantis wrote.
—Warren signing on to a similar June 24 statement with other prosecutors stating, “we decline to use our offices’ resources to criminalize reproductive health decisions.”
—Warren enacting a policy not to prosecute “certain criminal violations, including trespassing at a business location, disorderly conduct, disorderly intoxication, and prostitution.”
—Warren enacting a policy “against prosecuting crimes where the initial encounter between law enforcement and the defendant results from a noncriminal violation in connection with riding a bicycle or a pedestrian violation.”
“Warren has effectively nullified these Florida criminal laws in the 13th Judicial Circuit, thereby eroding the rule of law, encouraging lawlessness, and usurping the exclusive role of the Florida Legislature to define criminal conduct,” the order states.
The two joint statements were part of the group “Fair and Just Prosecution,” a network of prosecutors from around the country. He was the only Florida prosecutor to sign on to the abortion statement, but Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell also signed on to the statement about gender-affirming care.
Warren’s suspension came the same day the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers sent letters to every elected state attorney in Florida — including Miami-Dade’s Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Broward’s Harold Pryor — urging them to sign the abortion-related pledge.
Fernandez Rundle and Pryor, both Democrats, have been careful in their public statements since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark abortion decision Roe v. Wade this year. On Thursday, both of their offices declined to comment on Warren’s suspension.
As Warren’s replacement, DeSantis appointed Hillsborough County Judge Susan Lopez, a former county prosecutor whom DeSantis named to the bench last year.
DeSantis said he did not speak with Warren about his concerns before suspending him.
Clashes between police and prosecutors over specific cases are not uncommon. Even DeSantis has been selective about enforcing laws, federal guidelines and court precedent.
When protesters blocked traffic on Miami-Dade roads and highways last year, both DeSantis’ office and the Florida Highway Patrol, which reports to DeSantis, called the actions “illegal.” Although the protesters’ actions appeared to run afoul of the “anti-riot” law signed by DeSantis three months earlier, no one was cited or arrested.
Just last week, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., who was appointed by DeSantis, told school officials to ignore federal guidelines aimed at preventing discrimination against students based on such things as gender identity, arguing it would “vastly expand the application” of Title IX.
And earlier this year, DeSantis signed into law a 15-week abortion ban that violated Florida Supreme Court precedent establishing that Florida’s constitutional right to privacy included the right to an abortion. DeSantis has rejected the court’s interpretation and is looking to get the court to overturn that precedent.
The governor’s decision was a stunning override of the 369,129 Hillsborough County voters who cast their ballot for Warren in 2020, which made up 53.4% of turnout. Warren was first elected in 2016 by fewer than 5,000 votes, upsetting longtime incumbent Mark Ober, a Republican.
It also had echoes of a 2016 clash between former Gov. Rick Scott and Aramis Ayala, the state’s first Black state attorney, representing Orange and Osceola counties.
Ayala surprised many supporters and made national news when, just two months into office, she announced she would not be seeking the death penalty in any cases, including in the case of Markeith Loyd, who was charged with killing police Lt. Debra Clayton and Loyd’s pregnant ex-girlfriend.
Scott reassigned that case and 28 others to a neighboring state attorney’s office, but did not suspend her. Ayala is now running for attorney general.
Before Thursday’s bombshell, DeSantis’ most high-profile removal of an elected official was Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel after his department’s failures during the Parkland mass shooting.
After problems in Broward and Palm Beach during the 2018 elections, such as failure to meet ballot counting deadlines, DeSantis also suspended Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher.
Bucher and Israel weren’t reinstated.
In 2019, DeSantis also suspended the superintendent of Okaloosa County schools, citing grand jury reports that teachers were abusing special needs children at two schools in her district, and has removed other local officials, including Port Richey Mayor Dale Massad, after they were charged with crimes.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who was the city’s police chief from 2009 to 2015, denounced Warren’s removal.
“Removing a duly elected official should be based on egregious actions — not political statements,” she tweeted. “In a free state, voters should choose their elected officials.”
DeSantis’ action was also condemned by the top two Democrats running to unseat him in the November election.
“This is a politically motivated attack on a universally respected State Attorney democratically elected to exercise prosecutorial discretion,” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor, tweeted, “DeSantis’ decision to suspend him is that of a wannabe dictator who puts partisan politics first.”
Thursday’s news conference brought a celebratory crowd, who laughed at Judd’s comments and stood to applaud DeSantis when he announced Warren’s suspension.
On Wednesday, DeSantis’ spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, warned on Twitter that there would be a “MAJOR announcement” by the governor Thursday morning.
“Prepare for the liberal media meltdown of the year,” she wrote.
(Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald staff writers Romy Ellenbogen and Ana Ceballos, Times staff writer Kirby Wilson and Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.)
©2022 Tampa Bay Times. Visit at tampabay.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.