Newly elected Hillsborough County Chief Judge Christopher Sabella has rejected a longshot request from four prominent lawyers to undo Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointment of Suzy Lopez as state attorney replacing the ousted Andrew Warren.
The lawyers, all Democrats, were former American Bar Association President Martha Barnett of Tallahassee, former state Attorney General Bob Butterworth, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Peggy Quince of Tampa and well-known Tallahassee lawyer Barry Richard.
They argued that because a federal judge has ruled that DeSantis’ removal of Warren from the post was illegal, the office should be considered vacant. In that case, they said, Florida law gives the chief judge of the judicial circuit authority to appoint a replacement.
Sabella, an appointee of Republican former Gov. Jeb Bush, replaced retired Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta in an election among the judges of Hillsborough County, the 13th Judicial Circuit, in March.
Warren is suing to be returned to his office. Meanwhile, the state Senate has the power to either overturn or uphold DeSantis’s action.
The four lawyers said Sabella should appoint a replacement to serve until Warren is either reinstated or his removal is upheld, or a new state attorney is elected in 2024.
Failure to do so, they said, could cast doubt on the outcomes of cases handled by the State Attorney’s Office.
“Furthermore,” they said, “democracy and the rule of law demand” a duly elected or lawfully appointed state attorney. “For over a year now, the community has had neither.”
In January, federal District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee ruled that Warren’s removal was illegal, but said he lacked the jurisdiction to order Warren’s reinstatement. Warren is appealing that ruling.
In a response letter that Richards called “respectful,” Sabella replied that constitutional rights of all crime victims and defendants will be ensured in the district. Citing continuing litigation over Warren, he declined to comment on the merits of the lawyers’ arguments beyond noting that Hinkle and the Florida Supreme Court both refused to reinstate Warren.
Unless the Senate or the courts rule otherwise, he said, “We will continue to operate on the presumption that Ms. Lopez’s appointment … is valid.”
In an interview, Barnett said the writers “were not trying to politicize law enforcement. We just think there’s some question” because of Hinkle’s ruling and want “to make sure there’s no question about the legitimacy of the actions taken by the office. Public confidence in law enforcement is critical to democracy.”
Richards, who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans, including Jeb and George W. Bush, said he has no reason to believe that partisanship affected Sabella’s response.
“Unfortunately politics seems to be affecting everything today and even the public’s view of the judicial system,” he said. “The public seems to assume that judges just reflect the politics — my experience is that’s rarely the case.”
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Warren said he had no comment.
“The letter speaks for itself,” he said.