TALLAHASSEE — Two weeks after he was suspended from office, ousted Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren fired back with a federal lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, citing free speech rights and prosecutorial discretion in his fight to get his job back.
The lawsuit contends that the courts get to say what the state Constitution means — “not whatever DeSantis needs it to mean to silence his critics, promote his loyalists, and subvert the will of the voters.”
“In our country, there are protections for freedom and limits on power,” Warren said in a Wednesday morning news conference in Tallahassee. “Ron DeSantis may not like them. He may not respect them. But he does have to follow them.”
In an emailed response to the Tampa Bay Times, governor’s office spokesperson Bryan Griffin said: “It’s not surprising Warren, who was suspended for refusing to follow the law, would file a legally baseless lawsuit challenging his suspension.”
“We look forward to responding in court,” he said.
Wednesday’s legal action was the latest salvo in the politically-charged battle that has garnered attention from Fox News to MSNBC. The Republican governor, whose policies have been criticized by Warren, a Democrat, removed him from office Aug. 4. The night before, a DeSantis spokesperson predicted via Twitter that the governor would trigger “the liberal media meltdown of the year.”
In his order, DeSantis cited two joint statements Warren signed with prosecutors across the country, one condemning laws that criminalize transgender health care, and another pledging to refrain from prosecuting people who seek or provide abortions.
DeSantis accused the state attorney of neglect of duty and incompetence. Warren, he said, was eroding the rule of law, encouraging lawlessness and usurping the role of the Legislature. Suspended without pay, Warren was escorted from his offices by an armed deputy.
Warren’s lawsuit countered that Florida does not have a transgender-related law that would create such cases for him to consider, and that no requests to prosecute abortion-related crimes have come before him since he’s been in office. The joint statements say those who signed them ”will exercise the discretion inherent in the role of prosecutors.”
“Andrew didn’t say he’d do anything other than use his discretion,” said Jean-Jacques Cabou, an Arizona-based white collar and Constitutional lawyer who is part of Warren’s legal team.
On Wednesday, Warren framed the lawsuit as a fight in defense of democracy. By suspending him, Warren said, the governor was subverting the will of hundreds of thousands of people in Hillsborough County who voted to elect him as their state attorney.
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”By challenging this illegal abuse of power, we make sure that no governor can toss out the results of an election because he doesn’t like the outcome,” Warren said.
Elected twice, Warren has promised to focus on violent and serious crimes while using reforms including mental health courts and citations for low-level offenders.
DeSantis’ order also criticized Warren’s policies on not prosecuting certain violations, including those that stemmed from an officer stopping a pedestrian or bicyclist — locally known as “biking while Black.”
Warren’s suit contends those were not blanket polices, and his prosecutors were required to “apply their judgement and discretion to the individual cases.”
The suit notes a history of disagreement between the governor and state attorney: Warren advocated restoration of voting rights to certain ex-offenders, which DeSantis opposed. Warren supported the arrest of a church pastor who packed services during the spreading COVID pandemic and DeSantis signed an order authorizing the services — a move Warren called “spineless.” DeSantis supported an “anti-rioting” bill, which Warren called a solution in search of a problem.
The suit alleges DeSantis used the powers of his office “as a weapon to suppress criticism and promote cronyism” by suspending Warren, who had the right to speak freely on government policy.
It makes two legal claims: that the governor violated Warren’s First Amendment rights, and that he exceeded his power by removing Warren from office. It seeks a judge’s order that would reinstate Warren as state attorney and bar DeSantis from retaliating against him for things he says or policies he enacts.
“The bottom line is everyone should follow the law, even the governor,” said Warren’s Tampa lawyer, David Singer. “We’re going to ask a court to make sure that happens.”
DeSantis appointed Susan Lopez, a judge he put on the county court bench in 2021, as acting state attorney. The suit notes that Lopez has already begun rolling back “policies enacted by Warren and opposed by DeSantis.”
In Wednesday’s news conference, Warren referred to Lopez as a “Ron DeSantis accomplice.”
The event was open to the public, and the packed conference room in a hotel two blocks from the state Capitol included conservative activists, among them Andrew Shirvell, executive director of the group Florida Voice of the Unborn. A reporter from the right-wing One America News Network posed multiple questions to Warren defending the governor’s action.
Warren encouraged supporters to go to a new website, andrewwarrenfl.com, for people to donate to his legal fund. When asked multiple times whether he would disclose his donors, however, he didn’t say.
”We will follow the law as we have always followed the law,” he said.
The Florida Senate has final say on a public official’s removal or reinstatement. Under the rules, that process is stayed until court proceedings, including appeals, are concluded, Singer said. Warren’s attorneys received notice Wednesday that Senate action had been stayed.
If a judge decides Warren’s suspension was unlawful, the Senate would have no further involvement, Singer said, “because their role is premised on there having been lawful gubernatorial action.”
In a second news conference Wednesday afternoon in Tampa, Warren and his attorneys reiterated that their challenge to the governor’s actions was rooted in free speech and an adherence to democracy.
“This is not about me personally,” Warren said. “This is about the fight for democracy in the state of Florida. ... If we don’t fight back against this, if we allow the governor the power to remove an elected official on a whim, what’s left of our democracy?”
The lawsuit has been assigned to Senior U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle.
Appointed by former President Bill Clinton, Hinkle has ruled against the state in previous cases that raised constitutional questions.
In a 2014 case, Hinkle ruled that Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Last year, Hinkle blocked a Florida law that allowed the state to penalize social media companies that ban political candidates. A federal appeals court agreed that the law violated the First Amendment.
Times Staff Writer Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.