Federal judge finds DeSantis violated Florida Constitution but dismisses lawsuit


A federal judge ruled Friday that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis violated the state Constitution when he suspended an elected, progressive-minded state prosecutor but decided that the law ultimately allowed the decision to oust him to stand.

US District Judge Robert L. Hinkle also found that DeSantis (R) violated the First Amendment by considering Andrew Warren’s public statements on controversial topics such as abortion and transgender care as a “motivating factor” in the decision to suspend him.

But no one offered a reason to reinstate Warren, offering DeSantis a legal victory.

DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske called it “a win for the governor and a win for the people of Florida.” However, Hinkle’s 59-page order finds fault with the actions of DeSantis and his staff, as well as the case and facts they brought to trial.

“The record does not include a hint of misconduct by Mr. Warren,” Hinkle wrote. “As far as this record reflects, he is diligently and efficiently doing the job he was elected to do, the way he told the voters he would do it … to say Mr. Warren has neglected his duty or is incompetent is incorrect.”

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Although Hinkle found no fault on Warren’s part, he concluded that it was a matter of state.

DeSantis’ decision to suspend the twice-elected prosecutor in August alarmed many who saw it as an overreach by the governor. One of Warren’s lawyers called it “a political hit job.”

Florida’s popular governor — who is seeking re-election in November and is widely considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate — justified the suspension by saying Warren had no right to “refuse to enforce Florida law. “

The Tampa area prosecutor said he was being punished for exercising his right to free speech. Earlier in the year, he signed two pledges written by Fair and Just Prosecution, an organization that advocates for reform-minded prosecutors. In a pledge, prosecutors promised not to “criminalize reproductive health decisions.” A second statement made similar vows about people seeking transgender health care.

Warren, who was the first witness in the five-day trial unharmed in late November in Tallahassee, said the issue was beyond him.

“As I said at the beginning, there’s more at stake than my job,” Warren said at a news conference the morning the trial began. “We’re not just fighting to do the job I was elected to do, I’m fighting for the rights of voters across Florida to have the elected officials of their choice.”

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In his trial testimony, Warren said the pledges he signed were never implemented or adopted as official policy. Two assistant state attorneys in Warren’s office backed up that assertion, testifying that they did not consider the statements to be a reflection of actual policy. But Warren’s chief of staff said he thought the pledge upholding abortion rights amounted to a policy directive.

In announcing the suspension, DeSantis also pointed to Warren’s decision not to prosecute 67 protesters who were arrested for unlawful assembly during demonstrations over the 2020 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Warren was also instrumental in helping formerly incarcerated people regain their voting rights after DeSantis signed into law restrictions on a voter-approved constitutional amendment allowing them to register to vote. The prosecutor also created a conviction review office to review claims of innocence.

DeSantis criticized the actions of a “woke” prosecutor.

The trial provided a rare look inside the inner workings of DeSantis and his staff. Evidence and public records show that the governor’s office was excited about the “total free earned media” that resulted from the news conference where he announced the suspension. Careful staff tabulations estimated that the governor, who was running for re-election at the time, garnered media coverage worth $2.4 million.

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Testimony also showed that while DeSantis said he asked his staff for a report of any prosecutors deemed to be “taking the law into their own hands,” the focus was initially on Warren.

Larry Keefe, a former US attorney in Florida whom DeSantis named the state’s “safety czar,” testified that he consulted with several Republican state attorneys and sheriffs, as well as Tampa area GOP donors, but did not conduct extensive investigation.

During the trial, Warren’s lawyers asked members of DeSantis’ staff what the governor meant when he called people “woke.”

“To me, it means someone who believes there are systemic injustices in the criminal justice system and on that basis they can refuse to fully enforce and uphold the law,” said Ryan Newman, general counsel of DeSantis.

Newman added that “it is the belief that there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.”


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