DeSantis suspends Florida prosecutor for suggesting he would not enforce restrictions on abortion, gender therapy

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DeSantis suspends Florida prosecutor for suggesting he would not enforce restrictions on abortion, gender therapy

MIAMI — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended the top county prosecutor from Tampa on Thursday after the Democrat publicly said he wouldn’t enforce a new state abortion restriction or a potential law banning surgeries for transgender children.

Flanked by state and area law enforcement officials who are fellow Republicans, DeSantis said at his news conference that Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren was neglecting his official duties and was essentially usurping the veto power of a governor by signaling his refusal to prosecute those who break laws with which he disagrees.

“When you flagrantly violate your oath of office, when you make yourself above the law, you have violated your duty,” DeSantis said. “You have neglected your duty, and you are displaying a lack of competence to be able to perform those duties.”

Warren, who became a face of progressive criminal justice reform after he first won office in 2016 and had considered running for Florida attorney general in 2022, accused DeSantis of political posturing, suggesting the governor was motivated by his re-election campaign and his potential 2024 White House bid. 

“Today’s political stunt is an illegal overreach that continues a dangerous pattern by Ron DeSantis of using his office to further his own political ambition,” Warren said in a written statement, accusing DeSantis of overriding the will of the voters who elected him prosecutor. “The people have the right to elect their own leaders—not have them dictated by an aspiring presidential candidate who has shown time and again he feels accountable to no one.”

A Warren adviser who was not authorized to publicly speak on his behalf said Warren was blindsided by the DeSantis announcement and by the area law enforcement officials who bashed him as soft on crime while standing next to the governor at the news conference in Tampa.

Warren was removed from his office by deputies, according to the adviser and another knowledgeable source who described him as “angry and loud.”

Warren’s team says he justifies resisting Florida’s new abortion law DeSantis signed because it violates the law: a state constitutional privacy provision that the state Supreme Court previously ruled protected abortion rights. The new law is being challenged in court.

The high-profile political dynamics were telegraphed a day earlier by DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, who hyped the coming announcement on social media. The governor’s office also issued a statement to conservative media calling Warren a “Soros-backed” prosecutor, a reference to progressive financier George Soros, whom Warren in 2020 acknowledged may have helped his first successful election campaign four years before.

Warren was elected with more than 53% of the vote, or 370,000 ballots, in 2020 in Hillsborough County. A Democratic stronghold, Hillsborough has a Republican sheriff, Chad Chronister, who joined other colleagues in trashing Warren at the DeSantis news conference.

The suspension is another continuation of DeSantis’ muscular exercise of power, which Democrats and other critics routinely describe as dictatorial. More popular among Florida Republicans than former President Donald Trump, DeSantis has met little resistance from the GOP-led Legislature, although his office has a relatively poor court record defending laws he signed.

Florida’s Constitution gives a governor the right to suspend state officials for reasons of “misfeasance, malfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony.”

DeSantis’ order, however, did not cite specific instances where Warren refused to do his job. Instead, DeSantis’ order said, Warren’s “blanket refusal” to enforce Florida’s new abortion restrictions or prospective restrictions concerning issues related to surgeries or restroom use for transgender people ran afoul of the state constitution.

Under state law, the Florida Senate can decide whether to remove Warren from office for the remainder of his term. The chamber is controlled by the same Republicans who passed the abortion law that Warren said he opposes.

DeSantis cited two letters signed by Warren along with other prosecutors from across the country: A June 24, 2022, joint statement supporting abortion rights and a June 2021 letter condemning efforts in a number of states to restrict access to gender-affirming health care for transgender people.

Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court undoing federal protections for abortion rights, DeSantis signed the new legislation limiting abortions in Florida to 15 weeks, regardless of whether the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. The law is being challenged in court. DeSantis’ administration is in the process of using executive action to ban transition-related therapies for minors and Medicaid recipients. State lawmakers are expected to take the issue up during the next legislative session this spring.

Another state attorney from Florida, Orlando-area prosecutor Monique H. Worrell, joined Warren in signing the letter supporting access to gender-affirming care, but she didn’t sign the joint statement concerning abortion. A DeSantis spokesperson said Worrell is not being suspended for now because the proposed restrictions on surgeries for transgender children are not yet a matter of state law that she would be flouting.

Shortly after taking office in 2019, DeSantis issued his first suspension by temporarily removing Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel from office over his office’s handling of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland that left 17 dead and 17 wounded. Israel was subsequently removed from office by the Florida Senate.

DeSantis’ predecessor as governor, current Sen. Rick Scott, had refused to suspend Israel. Scott also had a different reaction to managing a different prosecutor from the Orlando area, Aramis Ayala, when she refused to prosecute death penalty cases, including one against an accused cop-killer: Scott just assigned those cases to other prosecutors instead of suspending her. Ayala is now running for attorney general.

DeSantis faces re-election this year. Polls show he’s leading his top prospective Democratic challengers, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Rep. Charlie Crist, who face each other in a primary on Aug. 23.

Both Crist and Fried have made abortion rights a top issue in the primary and issued statements indicating that Warren’s fate is now a campaign issue as well.  

“He’s doing this because he wants to be dictator, not a governor of Florida. That’s not how this works, though. This will backfire,” Fried said in a statement, which referenced Tuesday’s vote in Kansas to protect abortion rights. “We just saw it in Kansas. Florida is a pro-choice, pro-democracy state. If this stands, the people of Florida will put an end to it in November.”

CORRECTION (Aug. 4, 2022, 2:32 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the state’s abortion law. It was prior to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, not after.

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