Florida lawmakers could defy DeSantis in Andrew Warren case. They likely won’t.

A Times analysis shows Warren’s suspension is likely to stick if it reaches the state Senate.
Ron DeSantis announces the removal of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren during a news conference at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office administration building in Tampa.
Ron DeSantis announces the removal of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren during a news conference at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office administration building in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Aug. 16, 2022|Updated Aug. 16, 2022

Andrew Warren might need the Florida Senate’s help. That’s bad news for him.

If Warren, the former Democratic Hillsborough prosecutor whom Gov. Ron DeSantis removed from office last week, wants his job back, he has a few options. He can challenge DeSantis’ order with a court motion arguing the governor has exceeded his executive authority. His attorney plans to file that motion.

But the state Supreme Court sided with DeSantis on two similar recent cases about the scope of his power. That means Warren’s fate will likely eventually be decided by the Florida Senate under a provision in the state Constitution.

Warren is at least the 166th state or county official suspended by a Florida governor since 1999, according to records from the state Senate analyzed by the Tampa Bay Times.

Out of those cases, the Senate overrode a gubernatorial suspension just once.

Most suspensions do not even reach senators for a vote. In about 60% of the cases included in the analysis — which spans the entire run of recent Republican gubernatorial rule in Florida — suspended officials either resigned, had their terms expire or were voted out of office before the Senate weighed in.

The 163 cases that have been resolved — three, including Warren’s, are outstanding — largely don’t include instances where a governor removed a municipal officer. The Senate does not have a say in those cases most of the time. For example, Dale Massad, the former Port Richey mayor who was suspended after being charged with attempted murder and practicing medicine without a license, does not appear in the Senate record of suspensions.

Related: Drugs, guns and politics collided in the small town of Port Richey. Two mayors went to jail.

In addition to the municipal officers, the Florida Constitution allows the governor to suspend any state officer that can’t be impeached, any militia officer who isn’t currently serving or any county official.

Since 1999, governors have suspended 22 county commissioners, nine sheriffs and six school board members, the analysis showed. Gov. Rick Scott tried to remove 110 notaries public in 2013 and 2014 alone.

One of the suspended sheriffs was removed by Gov. Jeb Bush after a state investigation found he had been drunk in public multiple times. Bush reinstated that sheriff after the lawman agreed to treatment and counseling — then re-suspended the cop after he was arrested by the Tampa Police Department for driving under the influence.

Warren is the first state attorney to have their suspension recorded by the Senate since 1981, records show.

The governor can remove officials for a limited number of reasons: “malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony.”

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In the majority of the non-notary cases recorded by the Senate, suspended officials had been charged with or convicted of a crime — most often, a felony.

Sometimes, the charges were related to the way the official performed their duties. For example, Gov. Charlie Crist suspended an Orange County commissioner who was charged with multiple felonies, including accepting illegal campaign contributions. She was convicted and disqualified from holding office.

Other times, officials were suspended because of criminal charges that had nothing to do with their public office. Crist suspended a Highlands County commissioner who was charged with felony boating under the influence, manslaughter and vessel homicide. The commissioner, whose wife died in the boating accident, was later acquitted of those felony charges. Voters replaced the commissioner, and the Senate declined to act.

Related: DeSantis cited this 1930s gambling case when he suspended Andrew Warren

Andrew Warren has not been accused of any crime. DeSantis suspended him for “incompetence” and “neglect of duty,” citing what the governor called Warren’s “blanket policies” against prosecuting certain crimes such as illegal abortions post-15 weeks of pregnancy.

There are two episodes from recent Florida history in which officials not accused of crimes had their cases heard by the Senate. In 2005, lawmakers heard the case of Miriam Oliphant, the Broward supervisor of elections who was suspended by Bush for “neglect of duty, incompetence and misfeasance” after a rash of reported organizational problems across multiple election cycles in that county. Misfeasance means “misuse of power.”

And in 2019, lawmakers debated the fate of Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, whom DeSantis suspended for his law enforcement office’s response to the shootings at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport in 2017 and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. Like Warren, Israel was suspended for “neglect of duty and incompetence.”

Special masters appointed by the Senate heard evidence in both Oliphant’s and Israel’s cases. In Oliphant’s case, the investigator recommended she be removed. In Israel’s, the special master found the governor had failed to prove the allegations against Israel and recommended the sheriff be reinstated.

In both cases, the Republican-led Senate sided with the GOP governor, voting to remove the suspended officials.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, who sat on the Rules committee when it heard the Israel case, said the Senate should not have voted to remove Israel given the special master’s recommendation.

“Because of politics, the Senate just went with the governor,” said Farmer, who is running for Broward County circuit judge this year.

There are instances where a governor reinstated someone suspended by their predecessor. In 2008, Crist reinstated a Clay county commissioner who was suspended by Jeb Bush. Bush suspended the commissioner after she was charged with official misconduct and petit theft; Crist reinstated her after she was acquitted.

The only instance in recent Florida history in which a suspended official was reinstated by the Senate came in the middle of the dizzying stretch of notary suspensions by Gov. Rick Scott.

The governor suspended at least 110 notaries, alleging dozens of the officials had engaged in official misconduct and dozens more failed to report past criminal records. Notaries, who are appointed by the governor, serve as witnesses when important documents are signed.

At the time, Scott’s office said he had a “zero tolerance” policy for notaries who were alleged to have done wrong. At least four of the officials were reinstated by Scott on the condition they take a notary course; the Senate facilitated at least one of those compromises. Two other notaries got full hearings.

One of those officials, Shawn Leigh Rowland, had a special master recommend she be removed by the Senate. But senators found that Rowland hadn’t committed a serious enough violation to warrant her removal. They voted against Scott’s order.