Guest Column
DeSantis’ abuse of power and Florida’s drift from democracy to autocracy | Column
It is the governor, not ousted Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, who is neglecting his duties.
Gov. Ron DeSantis
Gov. Ron DeSantis [ JOE BURBANK | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published Aug. 9

When will we know when we have drifted from a democracy to rule by an autocrat? If you haven’t been paying attention, last week’s action by Gov. Ron DeSantis to suspend highly regarded and twice-elected Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren for “neglect of duty” and “incompetence” should tell you that we are there.

Howard Simon
Howard Simon [ Provided ]

The suspension requires a trial in the state Senate to be permanent, but that may be pro forma trial since the Legislature has surrendered its independence to the executive and is now, shamefully, a wholly owned subsidiary of DeSantis.

The basis for the governor’s charge of neglect was, first, that Warren pledged to “decline” to prosecute “reproductive health care decisions” made by a woman in consultation with her doctor to terminate a pregnancy under Florida’s newly enacted 15-week abortion ban, which provides no exceptions for rape and incest and, second, his opposition to criminalizing gender-affirming treatment for transgender minors, presumably prosecuting parents of the minor and their doctor.

Regarding the abortion ban, a trial judge found the ban “presumptively unconstitutional,” as then-Chief Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente put it, citing the state’s constitutional guarantee of privacy. The state’s appeal is pending before the 1st District Court of Appeal, which has allowed the law to remain in effect in the meantime.

Regarding gender affirming surgery, there is no law to enforce. The Legislature has not acted. There is no duty that Warren could have neglected. Apparently, according to DeSantis, it is neglect of duty to express strong opposition to such legislation.

It is important to note that the governor failed to cite any case that the state attorney allegedly neglected or mishandled. Just how stupid does DeSantis think we are? With no case cited to support a charge of neglect, the suspension is based on what Warren has said — much like the retaliation against the Disney Corp. for their statement of opposition to the “don’t say gay” legislation.

Warren’s real offense: He is a critic of DeSantis’ distracting culture war obsessions.

In 2017, then-Gov. Rick Scott removed 29 cases involving the death penalty from then-Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala who had pledged not to seek death sentences. Scott transferred the cases to another state attorney. He did not override the will of voters by removing her from office.

Clearly, DeSantis doesn’t like Warren’s vision for a reformed criminal justice system, one that is less racially biased and more efficient — prioritizing prosecution of crimes against persons and property, rather than on low-level crimes that have filled jails and prisons with young Black men. Clearly, the governor is annoyed by Warren’s use of his lawful discretion to set prosecutorial priorities that don’t further DeSantis’ culture war crusades.

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If so, the governor should find a candidate to oppose Warren in the next election. That is how power is exercised while respecting democracy. Otherwise, the governor is spitting in the face of the voters of Hillsborough County who elected and re-elected their state attorney.

But the gall of charging Warren with “neglect of duty” when it is the governor who has failed in his duty to honor our state’s constitution.

In 1980, 42 years ago, the people of the state of Florida voted overwhelmingly to place protection of privacy in their constitution. Nine years later, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that right includes protection for the most intimate and personal decisions a women can make — whether to carry a pregnancy to term. Florida women have had that protection under our state constitution for more than three decades.

Nevertheless, the (formerly libertarian) governor signed the new abortion ban anyway. So much for the will of the people, and so much for more than 30 years of Supreme Court rulings. That is a neglect of duty.

Also, in 2010, the people again took control of their constitution and overwhelmingly approved the Fair District amendments, requiring that legislative districts not be “drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party,” nor “to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice.”

Nevertheless, the governor forced the Legislature to adopt his redistricting map that clearly committed both transgressions: partisan gerrymandering and diminishing the political power of racial minorities. Again, so much for the will of the people.

These assaults on our constitutional values of privacy and fair electoral process are DeSantis’ neglect of duty — and should merit his removal from office by the voters in November.

Howard L. Simon served as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida from 1997-2018, and is president of Clean Okeechobee Waters Foundation Inc.


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