Attorney David Singer had the day off and was playing basketball with his two daughters in their South Tampa driveway when the call came.
It was Andrew Warren, Hillsborough’s state attorney and a friend. “I’m being escorted out of my office by an armed sheriff’s deputy,” Warren told him.
“It was hard to comprehend,” Singer said, recalling the swirl of events on Aug. 4.
Gov. Ron DeSantis had just removed Warren, with whom he had a history of clashes. The governor pointed to documents Warren signed with other prosecutors across the country — one condemning laws criminalizing transgender health care, another pledging to refrain from prosecuting people who seek or provide abortions. The governor called it neglect of duty and incompetence.
“Prosecutors have a duty to enforce the law, not pick and choose which laws they agree with,” the governor tweeted.
Singer, a well-known Tampa lawyer who directed one of Hillsborough County’s earliest transit referendums and more recently ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature, started building a legal team that this week sued the governor to get Warren’s job back. The federal lawsuit filed in Tallahassee on Wednesday invokes Warren’s right to free speech, points out he has had no such abortion or transgender cases to consider, and accuses DeSantis of overstepping his authority.
“This is probably the most important case I’ve handled.” said Singer, 44. “I believe this is about democracy and the right for voters to choose who their elected officials are.”
The first attorney he thought to call was Jean-Jacques Cabou — a Phoenix-based white-collar and constitutional litigator whose practice involves defending individuals and corporate entities against government investigations.
Cabou, who’s often called J, was on sabbatical, but it didn’t matter: “It’s an important case.” he said.
The two now lead a team that has several attorneys — and the backing of some legal notables including former high-ranking judges.
Cabou, 45, works for the international firm Perkins Coie and often represents clients who have constitutional disputes with the state. He once sued Arizona’s attorney general for demanding records on abortion patients who had donated fetal tissue at a family planning clinic. The case was settled in 2017 with the patients’ privacy protected.
Singer worked at Holland & Knight and his own firm and is now at Shumaker. Raised in a Chicago suburb, he liked that Tampa had a small town feel and was “a relationship community,” he said. His practice has included real estate and land use in the rapidly-growing city and helping clients interact with government.
Singer was director of Moving Hillsborough Forward, which raised nearly $1.6 million to promote a 1-cent sales tax to pay for light rail, a doubled bus fleet and road expansions. But voters rejected that ballot initiative in 2010 in a tough political environment with the tea party on the rise, Singer said.
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In 2016, Singer ran for the State House as a moderate, pro-business Democrat and was defeated by Republican Jackie Toledo.
Singer met the future state attorney when Warren, a former federal prosecutor, came to Tampa, ran as an unknown and pulled off a stunning upset of the popular Republican incumbent, Mark Ober. Singer worked on Warren’s first successful campaign and the one that followed and described him as “disciplined.” Their families celebrate holidays together.
“Andrew and I have developed a relationship over the years where when difficult situations present themselves, I’m one of his first calls,” Singer said.
Warren’s ouster earlier this month also sparked calls, emails and offers of help from other legal types — among them, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Wells, who was on the court during the recount of the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Wells said when he reached out to Warren’s lawyers, “I told them I thought the (Florida) Constitution provided specific grounds for the suspension of a state attorney,” he said. “I didn’t read that there were any of those grounds involved in what the governor asserted.”
Wells said he hopes “that this can get expeditiously handled so that (Warren) can return to his elected position.”
Chris Altenbernd, who served as a 2nd District Court of Appeal judge for 27 years, is also a supporter of Warren’s bid to get his job back. Altenbernd — who, notably, represented Republican Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White in his fight against a county transportation sales tax — said the governor’s order doesn’t allege Warren did anything he shouldn’t have.
“I get why the governor doesn’t like to have a state attorney criticize him,” Altenbernd said. “But you know, that’s political free speech.”
The governor’s office has called Warren’s lawsuit “legally baseless” and said Warren had refused to follow the law. A spokesperson said they looked forward to responding in court.
Singer says he anticipates “a robust discussion” of the Constitution.