Gov. Ron DeSantis’ suspension Thursday of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren was politically craven, legally suspect, suspiciously timed and odorously soaked in autocracy, partisanship and bad faith — in other words, completely in keeping with this governor’s behavior. Warren should not have provided DeSantis a narrow opportunity to exploit. But that doesn’t excuse the governor’s gross abuse of power, his contempt for Hillsborough voters or his disregard for due process.
DeSantis announced during a staged appearance in Tampa that he had suspended Warren for failing to prosecute certain crimes. The governor’s 10-page order is a political smear job, full of what-ifs and supposition that would be laughed out of court.
The Republican governor accused Warren, a Democrat, of putting himself “above the law” by signing statements that he would not enforce laws prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors or laws limiting abortion. No matter that Florida has no such gender-affirming law for Warren to prosecute — or not prosecute. Warren joined 91 other attorneys general and district attorneys around the country in signing a statement in June declaring they would “decline” to prosecute “reproductive health decisions.” But DeSantis cited no example of Warren having declined to prosecute an actual case. Who gets punished for acts they don’t commit?
DeSantis’ enemies in DeSantis’ Florida — that’s who. Warren, after all, was one of the earliest critics of the so-called “riot bill” that DeSantis rolled out in 2020, calling it a “lazy way” to address criminal behavior. Some police officials in Tampa also had a beef with Warren’s decision to drop some low-level charges against protesters in area demonstrations after the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Those grievances were aired again Thursday in the governor’s suspension order and in remarks by DeSantis’ conservative allies assembled before the cameras.
Warren should have been more cautious in expressing how he would handle these cases, especially since they’re at the forefront of the Republicans’ social wars, and since the law requires a blind administration of justice. For the most part, the statements he and other prosecutors signed reflected their views on the criminalization of transgender and abortion issues, not on the enforcement of laws. The prosecutors’ acknowledged their discretion to bring charges and maintained that their time could be put to better uses. The June statement on abortion, though, declared that “we decline to use our offices’ resources to criminalize reproductive health decisions.” The wording should have been more nuanced to acknowledge that prosecutors would make decisions on an individual basis.
Still, the governor cites no case that Warren mishandled, making his suspension a preemptive strike. That’s an egregious overreach, and one that should scare Republicans, Democrats, independents and anyone concerned with due process and the separation of powers. Past governors have used this authority carefully. In 2018, then-Gov. Rick Scott suspended Broward County elections supervisor Brenda Snipes on the heels of a tumultuous recount, citing a litany of well-publicized problems, including the misplacement and inadvertent mixing of ballots. A year before, Scott reassigned more than two dozen potential death penalty cases away from Orlando state attorney Aramis Ayala after she declared she wouldn’t pursue capital punishment. That remedy was more appropriate than a blanket removal from office.
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But appropriate is not what this suspension is about. This putsch was about energizing the Trump base on abortion by ousting a high-profile Democrat that Hillsborough voters elected twice, in 2016 and 2020, both times on a progressive platform against a Republican opponent. Why else did DeSantis spend time Thursday talking about San Francisco and George Soros and “woke” criminal justice reform? Why else did it take DeSantis two years after the 2020 protests to parachute in and remove Warren only months before the governor’s own reelection bid?
The case now goes to the state Senate. Will the Republican-led chamber dare to defy DeSantis, dare to do the right thing, or will it hold a show trial to remove Warren from office? This was a terrible day for the rule of law, for the image of Republicans and area law enforcement, for democracy in Florida — and for what it says about the fate of abortion rights in America’s third-largest state.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.