‘Political theater’: Experts weigh in on DeSantis suspension of Tampa state attorney

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ announcement that he was suspending a state attorney for vowing not to prosecute abortion and sex-reassignment crimes was met with alarm by some legal experts, who said it was another sign of the Republican’s focus on culture-war issues.

“This is pure political theater,” said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University. “It should worry every state attorney, it should worry every state officer who is subject to the governor’s power, and it should really worry anybody who cares about democracy.”

In an executive order suspending Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren from office, DeSantis pointed to several crimes that Warren has openly pledged not to prosecute, including violations of Florida’s recently passed 15-week abortion ban. Warren has signed letters saying he would not enforce laws prohibiting sex reassignment for minors or laws limiting abortion.

A state attorney’s “blanket refusal” to enforce a criminal law amounts to a “functional veto of state law,” the governor’s executive order said.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor, wrote on Twitter that the suspension amounted to “dangerous overreach.”

“Prosecutors, especially elected prosecutors, have authority to exercise discretion,” Gelber told the Miami Herald. “This is really just pretty outrageous.”

Gelber noted that DeSantis has declined to take action against prosecutors who have implemented similar “blanket” policies, including those declining to charge people for minor marijuana crimes — as Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced in 2019.

“A wrongheaded law that criminalizes the behavior of innocent women and physicians is something a prosecutor has a right to say is not my priority,” Gelber said, referring to the state abortion law.

A spokesperson for Fernandez Rundle did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suspension of Warren.

Andrew Warren, state attorney of the 13th Judicial Circuit, speaks to the Florida Chapters of Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action, June 3, 2022, in Tampa.
Andrew Warren, state attorney of the 13th Judicial Circuit, speaks to the Florida Chapters of Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action, June 3, 2022, in Tampa.

The governor has the authority under the Florida Constitution to suspend state officials for a host of reasons, including “misfeasance, malfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties or commission of a felony.”

It is then up to the Florida Senate to hear the merits of the case and either remove the official from office or reinstate them. Warren would face a difficult path to victory before the Republican-controlled Senate, Jarvis said.

“This Senate is just a rubber stamp for DeSantis,” he said.

READ MORE: DeSantis suspends state attorney who opposed prosecuting abortion, sex reassignment crimes

The legal aspects of the situation are perhaps less clear-cut than the political ones, experts said.

Florida’s legal ethics standards say prosecutors have broad discretion to decide which cases to charge, and can consider factors such as “the impact of prosecution or non-prosecution on the public welfare.”

At the same time, prosecutors should ignore “partisan or other improper political or personal considerations,” the standards say.

While the standards don’t explicitly prohibit blanket policies against prosecuting certain types of cases, there is some precedent working in DeSantis’ favor, said H. Scott Fingerhut, a professor at the Florida International University College of Law.

Fingerhut pointed to a 2016 case in which the Florida Supreme Court upheld former Gov. Rick Scott’s reassignment of dozens of cases after Aramis Ayala, Florida’s first Black state attorney who represented Orange and Osceola counties, announced she would not seek the death penalty in any cases.

By publicizing his stances against prosecuting certain types of crimes, Fingerhut said, Warren gave DeSantis an opening to take action.

“Warren’s problem is the blanket policies that he has been choosing are not the kinds of blanket policies this governor is going to let you play with,” Fingerhut said.

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.