TAMPA — In the days since his surprise ouster from being Hillsborough County’s State Attorney, Andrew Warren has been fielding questions from CNN, the Washington Post and Morning Joe — and mapping out legal strategies for getting his job back.
“This is not about the state attorney in Hillsborough County being suspended,” Warren told one interviewer. “This is about democracy being overthrown.”
Last week, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis accused Warren of incompetence and neglect of duty for statements Warren signed saying he would not enforce laws prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors or laws limiting abortion. With that, DeSantis said, Warren had nullified law, encouraged lawlessness and taken over the Legislature’s role in defining criminal conduct.
But Warren said he had never ruled on any of these cases, which had never come before him. In fact, Florida has no such gender-affirming law for him to consider.
“I’m angry,” said Warren, a Democrat who has been critical of the governor in the past. “Like everyone else should be.”
DeSantis isn’t yielding. In an emailed response Tuesday to the Tampa Bay Times, a governor’s office spokesperson dismissed Warren’s public case to get reinstated. “Mr. Warren’s statements are yet another display of his lack of respect for the law,” he said.
So what happens next?
When Florida’s governor removes a public official from office, the matter is ultimately decided by the Florida Senate. But this case is expected to land in a courtroom first.
“We do believe there is a place for the judiciary to interpret the Constitution,” said Warren’s attorney, David Singer, who plans to file a writ of quo warranto motion challenging the removal.
Singer declined to specify where that motion would be filed — in court in Tampa, Tallahassee or elsewhere — or to give a specific timetable.
“We’re going to ask the judge for relief,” Singer said. “This is such an unusual situation, the vast overreach by a governor, that we presume when a judge finds this blatantly unconstitutional that Andrew will be restored to his office.”
Asked if the matter would go to federal court, Singer said: “We’re exploring all avenues for relief.”
Legal experts have opined that this could be a First Amendment free speech issue because Warren was removed for something he said — or signed — and not actions he took.
For perspective on how the removal process works in Florida, there’s the case of Scott Israel. In 2019. the twice-elected Broward County Sheriff was suspended by DeSantis for the response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Like Warren, Israel was accused of incompetence and neglect of duty.
First, Israel went to state court to challenge the validity of his suspension, but a circuit judge denied his petition, according to court documents.
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By statute, the Senate appoints a select committee or a special magistrate to hear evidence and make a recommendation on whether a removal should stand or the public official should be reinstated to office. Then the Senate holds a hearing to make that decision.
In Israel’s case, the appointed special master, conservative Republican lawyer and former lawmaker Dudley Goodlette, recommended that Israel be returned to his position as sheriff. But after an emotional four hours of debate, the Senate voted 25-15, largely along party lines, to remove him.
“Your vote has been stolen and the results of our 2016 election have been overturned,” said a statement from Israel after the vote. “From 450 miles away, the governor substituted his judgement for yours and installed his own sheriff in Broward County.”
Israel’s case took nine months from his initial removal to the Senate vote. Presuming Warren’s case follows a similar timetable, that would mean Susan Lopez, the county judge who DeSantis appointed last week as state attorney, will have served months as the county’s top prosecutor without having been elected by voters. Lopez was appointed to the bench by DeSantis in 2021.
Singer said lawyers across the state have left voicemails offering assistance, and current and former politicians have also reached out. Warren said some who have called said they didn’t vote for him, but found his removal “outrageous.”
“I just want my job back. I don’t want to be a martyr,” he said. “I just want to do the job I was elected to do, twice.”