By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Saying that a twice-elected Hillsborough County prosecutor has put himself “above the law,” Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday suspended State Attorney Andrew Warren for pledging to not enforce Florida’s 15-week restriction on abortion.
DeSantis appointed Hillsborough County judge Susan Lopez to take Warren’s place during his period of suspension.
Flanked by law enforcement officials from around the Tampa Bay area, DeSantis held a press conference Thursday to announce Warren’s suspension effective immediately.
The governor said he will pursue Warren’s eventual removal from office, an issue that would have to go before the Republican-controlled state Senate.
“The conduct that he has done has fell below the standard that’s required in the Florida Constitution. When you’re saying you’re not going to enforce certain laws you don’t like, that’s a neglect of duty. That, quite frankly, is incompetence as defined in Florida law,” DeSantis said.
Warren, a Democrat, lashed out at DeSantis on Thursday, accusing the governor of overstepping his authority.
“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. It spits in the face of the voters of Hillsborough County who have twice elected me to serve them, not Ron DeSantis,” Warren said in a prepared statement. “In our community, crime is low, our Constitutional rights — including the right to privacy — are being upheld, and 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.”
Warren, who was first elected as state attorney for Florida’s 13th Judicial Circuit in 2016, recently signed a joint letter promising to avoid prosecuting people for providing or seeking abortions. The letter was published in June by the organization Fair and Just Prosecution, which bills itself as bringing together elected local prosecutors to promote “a justice system grounded in fairness, equity, compassion, and fiscal responsibility.”
Warren signed the letter along with more than 90 prosecutors from various states, some of which have enacted limitations on abortion similar to the Florida measure. The Florida Legislature passed the 15-week abortion restriction this spring, and DeSantis signed it in April. Providers could face third-degree felony charges for breaking the law.
“Not all of us agree on a personal or moral level on the issue of abortion. But we stand together in our firm belief that prosecutors have a responsibility to refrain from using limited criminal legal system resources to criminalize personal medical decisions,” the June 24 letter said. “As such, we decline to use our offices’ resources to criminalize reproductive health decisions and commit to exercise our well-settled discretion and refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide, or support abortions.”
DeSantis also targeted Warren for joining a separate letter “condemning the criminalization of transgender people and gender-affirming healthcare” that was published by the organization Fair and Just Prosecution a year ago. The letter also was signed by Monique Worrell, state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit.
DeSantis’ administration recently ratcheted up pressure on medical providers who provide puberty-blocking medication and hormone therapy for transgender people. The State Board of Medicine is set to consider a proposal, backed by the Florida Department of Health, that would ban doctors from using the treatments for transgender youths.
“That’s a debate that we’re having mostly administratively and through medical licensing in Florida. But other states have enacted penalties on the people who would perform those, which are really disfiguring these young kids. And (Warren) said it doesn’t matter what the Legislature does in the state of Florida, he’s going to exercise a veto over that,” the governor said Thursday.
The state Constitution allows the governor to remove an elected official from office for “malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence” and the inability to perform their official duties.
DeSantis’ action drew harsh criticism from Democrats Thursday.
State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat who is in line become House minority leader after the November elections, slammed DeSantis for what she called his “interference” in the prosecutor’s office.
“I’m not going to mince words: this is a shocking political attack on an elected official serving the people of Hillsborough County. Andrew Warren is being removed because he assured our community that he will not be a foot soldier in Ron DeSantis’ extremist agenda,” Driskell said in a statement.
State Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, decried Warren’s suspension as being part of “attacks on women,” calling DeSantis “extreme” and “unhinged” in a tweet.
“Andrew Warren has served our community with dignity and respect and to suspend him because he won’t criminalize a women’s right to choose (is) unconscionable. Shame on you Governor, may the women in this state speak out this November,” Cruz wrote.
DeSantis invited Tampa-area law enforcement officials at Thursday’s press conference to air their grievances about Warren. Their comments revealed a longstanding rift between the prosecutor and police.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister accused Warren of having been too lenient on crime.
“Over the last several years, State Attorney Warren has acted as an adjudicator of all, as if some type of supreme authority, by reducing charges, dropping cases, and single-handedly determining what crimes will be legal or illegal in our county,” Chronister said.
Former Tampa police chief Brian Dugan, who retired last year, called Warren a “fraud” and criticized Warren for not prosecuting 67 Tampa protesters who were arrested for unlawful assembly during demonstrations following the death of George Floyd in 2020.
Lopez, Warren’s replacement, said Thursday that she got a call from DeSantis “a couple of days ago” letting her know that she would be installed as state attorney.
“It is my promise to the people of Hillsborough County that I will faithfully execute the duties of this office and to ensure that we are fulfilling its purpose to prosecute crimes and protect the people” of the county, Lopez said.
Meanwhile, Warren’s suspension became the most recent cudgel that the Democrats who are vying to replace DeSantis are using against the governor.
State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried called Warren’s suspension a “politically motivated attack on a universally respected” elected state attorney.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, a St. Petersburg Democrat, condemned DeSantis’ action as “that of a wannabe dictator who puts partisan politics first.”