Advertisement

Florida Supreme Court hears arguments over DeSantis’ ouster of state prosecutor

DeSantis in August suspended Monique Worrell, the elected state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties.
 
The Florida Supreme Court listens to arguments in the case of Monique Worrell vs. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023 in Tallahassee.
The Florida Supreme Court listens to arguments in the case of Monique Worrell vs. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023 in Tallahassee. [ TNS ]
Published Dec. 6, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments in an attempt by suspended Central Florida prosecutor Monique Worrell to get her job back after Gov. Ron DeSantis ousted the Democrat this summer.

A lawyer for Worrell told justices the suspension did not meet a high bar set in the Florida Constitution, warning that allowing it to remain in place would have a “chilling” effect on prosecutors statewide and undermine the will of voters who overwhelmingly elected Worrell in 2020.

DeSantis’ attorney, however, countered that Worrell’s suspension as state attorney in the 9th Judicial Circuit in Orange and Osceola counties was justified and argued that the court lacked jurisdiction to decide the matter.

The Florida Constitution gives the governor the authority to suspend elected officials for a range of reasons, including “neglect of duty” and incompetence, and gives the Florida Senate the final decision over removal from office.

DeSantis issued an Aug. 9 executive order that, in part, accused Worrell of having policies that prevented or discouraged assistant state attorneys from seeking minimum mandatory sentences for gun crimes and drug trafficking offenses.

Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz noted that the court shows deference to the governor’s suspension powers.

“Why is the concept of neglect of duty not broad enough … to encompass the kind of things that are talked about in the suspension order?” he asked Laura Ferguson, an attorney representing Worrell.

Ferguson said the suspension order lacked specificity.

“What’s critical is that there is no duty that Ms. Worrell is alleged to have neglected. Her duty … is to exercise her discretion within the bounds of the law and to look at each case on an individualized basis,” she replied.

But Justice Charles Canady pushed back, saying the “scope” of the prosecutor’s duty was a political question the court should not address.

“Reasonable people can disagree about that, but the governor and the Senate have a constitutional responsibility to make determinations about what falls within the scope of neglect of duty and, under our precedents, we don’t get into that,” Canady said.

Justice John Couriel pointed to allegations in DeSantis’ order that Worrell’s office failed to charge juveniles as adults, a process known as “direct file.”

Ferguson said that, since Worrell’s office did charge some juveniles as adults, her office had “no blanket policy” banning it.

But Canady appeared unconvinced.

“It seems to me, (the argument is if) there’s not a categorical policy, then somehow, there can’t be a neglect of duty,” Canady said. “That just seems to be kind of something that would lead to playing games. We don’t have a policy, wink wink, we just don’t do it very often.”

Jeffrey DeSousa, the state’s chief deputy solicitor general, said Worrell’s suspension was justified because her prison incarceration rates lagged far behind other Florida prosecutors.’

“The governor properly suspended Miss Worrell from office because her practices or policies she adopted as state attorney contravened legislative policy and simultaneously resulted in gross underperformance of her office relative to all other state attorneys in the state,” DeSousa said.

DeSousa also argued that Worrell’s “policy judgment” was a “non-justiciable question” that should be left up to the Senate.

“The Senate itself is the court that the people set up to decide these questions,” he said.

The Senate has put the issue on hold while the legal fight plays out.

Worrell, who is Black, was joined by dozens of Central Florida supporters who crowded into the courtroom for Wednesday’s arguments. Aramis Ayala, who preceded Worrell as state attorney but did not seek reelection after serving a single term, and her husband, David, traveled to Tallahassee for the arguments. David Ayala is executive director of a group that advocates for formerly incarcerated people and their families.

Addressing reporters on the steps of the Supreme Court, Worrell accused DeSantis of suspending her to gain political points as he seeks the Republican nomination for president.

“Justice shouldn’t depend on your political party, on the color of your skin, on the money in your pocket or in your bank account, on the connections or affiliations that you have. We come seeking justice. But as many people before, we understand that, sometimes, justice is denied,” she said.

Worrell indicated she expected the Supreme Court — with five of seven justices appointed by DeSantis — to side with the governor and likened her suspension to the plight of Black people as they fought for equal rights.

“I want you to understand that regardless of the outcome here today, this is a fight for justice. I ran a platform on a new perspective, a fresh perspective, on justice. And that was not going to come without a fight. That was not going to come without pushback. And I stand still in that same fight because I believe that it is a fight worth having. Mass incarceration in this country is a problem,” she said.

Worrell noted that DeSantis frequently has boasted while campaigning about suspending her and fellow Democrat Andrew Warren, a twice-elected Hillsborough County state attorney.

She also emphasized that voters in her Central Florida circuit did not support DeSantis’ bid for reelection last year.

“This isn’t about public safety. This certainly isn’t about the people of the 9th Judicial Circuit because, guess what, they didn’t vote for him. This isn’t about me being some sort of danger to the community, because while he discusses how I have managed to reduce incarceration rates, what he failed to discuss is how at the same time, I also reduced crime rates in my circuit,” Worrell said.

DeSantis’ suspension stripped voters of the opportunity to have their voices heard, Worrell told reporters. She pledged to continue the battle to get her job back — if not through reinstatement, then by seeking reelection in 2024.

“Our votes have been stolen. Our justice has been killed and our democracy is being destroyed. We have to fight. And I am fine to be one of the many individuals who will lead the fight for justice,” she said.

By Dara Kam, News Service of Florida