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DeSantis says he would end legal ‘bias.’ 3 times he’s leveraged the law as governor.

Amid news of Trump’s indictment, DeSantis vowed that the justice system would operate differently if he were president.
 
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces the suspension of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren during a news conference Aug. 4, 2022, at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office administration building in Tampa.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces the suspension of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren during a news conference Aug. 4, 2022, at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office administration building in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published June 9, 2023|Updated June 9, 2023

Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed that if he wins the presidency he will “excise political bias and end weaponization” of the U.S. Department of Justice “once and for all.”

“We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation,” he wrote on Twitter on Thursday night in response to news that former President Donald Trump has been federally indicted on charges related to mishandling classified documents.

The tone was consistent with DeSantis’ portrayal of himself as fighting against liberal takeovers of powerful institutions. But as governor, DeSantis has been unafraid to use law enforcement, the courts or the expansion of his own executive powers to pursue his own agenda.

Here are three examples of DeSantis pushing the legal envelope to accomplish what he wants:

Prosecuting felons for voting

Hours before DeSantis held an afternoon news conference surrounded by uniformed law enforcement officers, nearly 20 people with felony records were arrested across Florida as part of a planned operation by state police.

DeSantis warned others that if they, too, improperly cast a vote: “We’re coming.”

The arrests were a display of the powers of the newly formed Office of Election Crimes and Security, which DeSantis pushed for amid pressure from the GOP base to do more to investigate Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud.

The people arrested had voted in elections despite being convicted of disqualifying felonies, including sex offenses and murder. Many expressed confusion about the charges, saying they had been issued voter ID cards and thought they were eligible to vote.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement was tasked with carrying out the arrests, and some of the agents were almost apologetic as they did so, body camera footage showed. Several former agents recently told The Washington Post they believe that DeSantis has politicized the department.

Of the 19 people arrested initially, 12 were registered as Democrats and at least 13 are Black, the Times/Herald found.

Attorneys who represented the former felons argued in court that the prosecutions were a “waste of time” and done to “make a political point.”

The arrests represented a more aggressive approach to voter fraud cases than some other prosecutors had taken in the past. In Lake County, for example, the Republican state attorney declined to bring charges against six convicted sex offenders who voted in 2020 because they did not “willfully” commit the crime, as was required by law.

Ousting a Florida prosecutor

In August, flanked by Tampa Bay law enforcement, DeSantis announced he was suspending Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren from office for what he said was the prosecutor’s disregard for his duty to enforce state laws.

Warren, a Democrat who had been elected twice to his position, had signed pledges saying he would not enforce laws prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors or laws limiting abortion, examples of actions that DeSantis said showed how Warren “put himself publicly above the law.”

The suspension essentially amounted to a firing, which Warren has fought in court. Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle ruled that DeSantis’ actions were unconstitutional and wrote that DeSantis was largely motivated by the political benefit of removing “a prosecutor whose performance did not match the Governor’s law-and-order agenda.” However, Hinkle also found that he did not have the authority to reinstate Warren.

The move marked a significant expansion of DeSantis’ executive powers. While governors have the authority to suspend duly elected local officials, it was historically reserved mostly for instances when the officials had been charged with crimes.

DeSantis commonly references his ousting of Warren during his presidential stump speeches.

“Florida has fought back against the plague of (George) Soros-backed district attorneys,” he told the crowd during his 2024 campaign kickoff speech in Iowa, to applause. “When we had one of those prosecutors … I removed him from his post.”

COVID-19 vaccine grand jury

DeSantis’ political stock rose in 2020 and 2021 as he became one of the nation’s most vocal governors pushing back on COVID-19 restrictions. Although he at first encouraged people in Florida to get the COVID-19 vaccine, he has since amplified the voices of individuals who have pushed vaccine misinformation, and his administration has recommended against the vaccine for some groups.

In December, he took his battle to the courts and requested a statewide grand jury to investigate “criminal or wrongful activity” related to how vaccines were developed, promoted and distributed.

He announced his request at the end of a 90-minute roundtable with the Florida surgeon general that focused on alleged harms from the vaccine. In that panel, DeSantis included several medical professionals who have critiqued vaccines. The majority of public health experts say that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and beneficial and that serious side effects are rare.

Shortly after his petition was filed, the Florida Supreme Court granted the request for a grand jury. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is the designated head of the investigation.

It is the third statewide grand jury DeSantis has convened. The other two focused on migrants being brought to Florida and school safety after the Parkland massacre.

Statewide grand juries have only been impaneled about 20 times in more than 40 years. Before DeSantis’ 2019 request to look into school safety, the last statewide grand jury had been impaneled in 2009, when former Gov. Charlie Crist asked to investigate crimes like bribery and fraud committed by local and state public officials.