Court-watchers, politicos and assorted interested parties have been eagerly awaiting a federal judge’s ruling in the case of Warren vs. DeSantis — the ousted Hillsborough County State Attorney suing the governor to get his job back.
It’s been more than a month.
U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle made it clear when the three-day trial ended in Tallahassee in early December that his would not be a quick decision. The case has far-reaching implications, from freedom of speech to the reach of executive power. The judge’s ruling isn’t expected to be a simple decision — like a guilty or not guilty verdict in a TV courtroom drama — but more a complex work of legal artistry.
Among the looming questions: Did State Attorney Andrew Warren’s signing of pledges not to pursue criminal cases involving abortion or transgender health care — and his office policies against prosecuting certain low-level crimes — equate to incompetence and neglect of duty, as Gov. Ron DeSantis claims?
Did the governor usurp the will of the voters by removing a state attorney they elected twice?
And was Warren’s suspension about protecting the public, or was it a ploy by a Republican governor expected to run for president to muzzle a Democratic prosecutor outspoken on progressive causes?
“It’s pretty complicated,” said Tampa attorney Todd Foster, a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent not involved in the case. “It’s possible also the judge in evaluating this detected levels of complexity that require even more consideration than originally thought.”
The case includes more than 100 court exhibits — text and email exchanges, news stories, tweets and government documents — the judge can consider. He’s expected to read from depositions of four witnesses who didn’t testify at trial. Those witnesses include Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, a pivotal figure who stood with DeSantis at a news conference the day Warren was escorted from his offices by a sheriff’s deputy.
Early on in Warren’s lawsuit to win his job back, when the judge was deciding between an immediate ruling or a trial, Hinkle indicated he’d like to avoid the possible back-and-forth effect of reinstating Warren only to have it potentially overturned by an appeals court.
“The public isn’t served by yo-yoing this office,” said Hinkle, who was nominated to the bench in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton. That‘s another reason for an especially thorough and nuanced order: Whatever Hinkle’s decision, the losing side is expected to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.
Warren’s suit doesn’t ask for a ruling on a single issue, but requests several remedies from the judge: to declare the suspension unconstitutional, find the governor exceeded his authority, order DeSantis to rescind the suspension and reinstate Warren, and bar DeSantis from retaliating.
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Warren asked the judge to make DeSantis pay his costs, expenses and legal fees. It’s likely the judge will have to weigh whether there is a legal mechanism for him to do those things.
Consider what Hinkle did two years ago in Jones vs. DeSantis.
That case dealt with whether the state could stop felons from having their voting rights restored if they had yet to pay their court costs, fines and restitution. The judge heard arguments and testimony in a multiday bench trial. It took about a month for him to issue a decision, and his ruling was 125 pages.
His opinion struck down parts of a state law that the judge described as a “pay-to-vote system.” He found that the law was unconstitutional for those unable to pay or those unable to determine how much they owe.
In the Warren case, the simple matter of scheduling may also be at play. The judge said he was busy in the weeks following the trial. Then came the holidays.
“In this case, you really don’t want to rush him,” said Foster. “The issues are so important that taking the time needed to reach the conclusion is time well invested.”
Said Hinkle at the end of the trial: “I don’t know who’s going to win.”