DeSantis, in show of unchecked one-man rule, now suspends officials over words | Editorial

Lauren Witte/AP
·4 min read

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ suspension of a prosecutor in the Tampa Bay area is not the first time a Republican governor and a liberal state attorney have clashed.

In 2017, a Central Florida prosecutor announced she wouldn’t pursue the death penalty, including in the case of a man accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and an Orlando police officer. Then-Gov. Rick Scott stripped 30 first-degree murder cases from Aramis Ayala’s office.

Ayala’s action carried far more real-life consequences than the letter Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren signed — along with dozens of state attorneys in the country — pledging not to prosecute crimes related to limits on abortion. Warren also pledged not to pursue cases related to limits on gender-affirming care for transgender kids. No cases dealing with either of those issues has ever reached his office, Warren wrote in an op-ed published in the Herald. Florida does not currently ban or limit transgender care for minors, though that might change under DeSantis, and the state’s 15-week abortion ban is being challenged in court.

The Florida Constitution gives governors broad powers to remove elected officials. Whether DeSantis has the legal ground to stand on is an issue for the courts. No doubt, Warren’s pledge was a political statement as much as his removal was a political stunt. He argues that prosecutors have discretion in “deciding whom to prosecute for which crimes.” But state attorneys should use that discretion on a case-by-case basis and not as a blanket policy.

Warren’s ousting, however, raises free-speech concerns. Can any governor — in “Minority Report” fashion — remove officials over words, before they even act?

The bigger question isn’t whether DeSantis could suspend a state attorney, but whether he should. Unwritten norms have been just as important in safeguarding American democracy as written laws. As much as Scott punished Ayala — and, in the end, the Florida Supreme Court sided with him — he never undid the results of a fair election through executive fiat. Suspending someone from office has usually been reserved for those who commit crimes or a grave dereliction of duty. That’s why few people cried foul when DeSantis removed Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel because of his office’s response to the Parkland shooting.

DeSantis is a powerful governor testing the boundaries of political norms in an attempt to turn the state into the dream of autocrats — where checks and balances are on paper only.

There’s little doubt that the GOP-controlled Florida Senate will rubber stamp Warren’s suspension. Lawmakers are too afraid or too eager to kiss DeSantis’ ring. They proved that this year when they delegated the redrawing of congressional districts — which falls under legislative purview — to DeSantis. He strong-armed the Legislature into passing a new district map that diminishes Black representation and gives the GOP an edge. They further calcified DeSantis as the de-facto House speaker and Senate president when they followed his orders and hastily passed a law to punish Disney for opposing a parental-rights bill commonly known as “Don’t say gay.”

Today, Warren is the target — and even some liberals might agree that state attorneys shouldn’t sign documents saying what cases they will prosecute. But, as Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes, of St. Petersburg, asked in a Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau interview recently: How far will DeSantis go? Under what circumstances can a governor remove someone from office before that official even acts on their words?

State attorneys run in partisan races, and it’s no secret they subscribe to their respective party’s platform. Of course, only the Democratic platform is the issue in this case. A religious Kentucky clerk became a conservative hero when she denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015.

“Can he remove every Democratic state attorney in the state? Can he remove a Democratic judge?” Brandes said. “Where does the length of that power go?”

DeSantis has an unquenchable thirst for political wars and the spotlight. He will stretch and test the boundaries of what’s politically acceptable as much as he can. With no one willing to hold him accountable, he has free rein.