Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order to remove Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren sent shockwaves through Florida on Thursday — and raised several questions from readers.
Can DeSantis oust a democratically elected official? Who else can be removed by DeSantis, and for what reasons? And what’s next for Warren?
Answers to these questions and more are below.
Whom can DeSantis remove from office?
Under Article IV of the Florida Constitution, DeSantis can suspend by executive order any state officers who are not subject to impeachment, as well as any county officers. That includes state attorneys, who are elected but not impeachable.
Impeachable positions in Florida’s state government include the governor, lieutenant governor, Cabinet members, state Supreme Court justices, courts of appeal judges, circuit court judges and county court judges.
DeSantis can also remove elected municipal officers, or local officials, such as mayors, after they’ve been charged with a crime.
Who else has been removed by DeSantis?
Other elected officials DeSantis has ousted during his tenure include a Broward County sheriff, the Palm Beach supervisor of elections and the superintendent of Okaloosa County schools.
He also removed Port Richey Mayor Dale Glen Massad in 2019 after he was charged with a crime.
What reasons can DeSantis use to remove a democratically elected official?
Under state law, DeSantis can suspend state officers for malfeasance (acting illegally), misfeasance (carrying out official duties in a way that is careless and causes harm), and neglect of duty (failing to carry out official responsibilities). Other actions that can warrant removal include drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties or committing a felony.
DeSantis’ executive order deems Warren’s decision to sign letters stating he would use his office’s discretion to not prosecute “certain offenses” as neglect of duty.
The offenses Warren said he wouldn’t prosecute include Florida’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks, as well as any future legislation to ban gender-affirming care for minors. (Florida has no such law in effect yet.) DeSantis’ order said those letters amounted to a blanket refusal to enforce, or a “functional veto,” of the law, which amounts to neglect of Warren’s responsibilities.
The order also said Warren’s “ignorance of official duties” amounts to incompetence.
What is prosecutorial discretion and is it protected by law?
One of the chief responsibilities of state attorneys like Warren is to decide which cases to prosecute using the state’s limited resources and which charges to file in a given case.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled in a 2017 case that prosecutorial discretion does not allow state attorneys to make blanket statements that they will not prosecute certain types of crimes, and must make decisions on a case-by-case basis. DeSantis’ executive order claims Warren’s statements about not prosecuting abortion providers or doctors providing gender-affirming care qualify as a blanket refusal to uphold the state’s laws.
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What’s next? Can Warren fight his removal?
Once the governor suspends a state official, if that person contests it, the task falls to the Florida Senate to decide whether to reinstate them or remove them from office. Both Warren and DeSantis will be able to present evidence, call witnesses and give testimony to make their case.
Senate rules state the Senate must send out a notice of an initial hearing within 90 days of the suspension and make a final decision by the end of the next legislative session.
Florida’s next legislative session is scheduled to start in March and end in May.
However, if Warren challenges his suspension in court, it could push that Senate timeline back.