TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A federal judge in Florida ruled Monday that a state prosecutor suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis will remain out of office while his court case against the Republican governor moves to trial.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle denied a motion to reinstate Andrew Warren as state attorney of Hillsborough County as the lawsuit continues, instead telling attorneys he would rather have a full trial over the suspension complete with evidence and testimony.
DeSantis suspended Warren last month for signing statements that said he would not pursue criminal charges against seekers or providers of abortion or gender transition treatments, as well as policies about not bringing charges for certain low-level crimes.
Warren quickly sued the governor after the suspension, alleging the removal violated his free speech rights. Warren, a Democrat, was elected in 2016 and 2020 as state attorney by voters in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa.
“Today is an important day in an important fight for democracy — our democracy,” Warren told reporters after the hearing in federal court in Tallahassee. “I’ve spent my career walking into court as a prosecutor, fighting for victims. Today, I went in as a plaintiff, fighting for democracy itself.”
During the roughly two hour hearing Monday, Hinkle questioned government lawyers over whether Warren's signing of statements on abortion and transgender rights would be protected under the First Amendment or if they were defined policies that could warrant his removal from office.
“Andrew Warren has no First Amendment right to say he's not going to do his job,” state Solicitor General Henry C. Whitaker told the judge.
In an executive order formally suspending Warren, DeSantis focused heavily on Warren’s signing of statements about not prosecuting crimes around abortion or gender transition treatments. More than 90 district attorneys, state attorneys general and other elected prosecutors across the U.S. have signed the letter saying they don’t intend to prosecute people for seeking, providing or supporting abortions.
Florida’s new abortion restriction became effective July 1. It prohibits abortions after 15 weeks, with exceptions if the procedure is necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life, prevent serious injury or if the fetus has a fatal abnormality. It does not allow exemptions in cases where pregnancies were caused by rape, incest or human trafficking.
Violators could face up to five years in prison. Physicians and other medical professionals could lose their licenses and face administrative fines of $10,000 for each violation.
Warren said no such abortion cases were brought to his office for prosecution. Florida has not enacted laws criminalizing gender transition treatments for minors but “these statements prove that Warren thinks he has the authority to defy the Florida Legislature and nullify in his jurisdiction criminal laws with which he disagrees,” the executive order from DeSantis reads.
DeSantis also cited Warren’s policy of not pursuing some lesser categories of crime, including “trespassing at a business location, disorderly conduct, disorderly intoxication, and prostitution.” Similar uses of prosecutorial discretion by progressives elected around the country in recent years have prompted some pushback.
Trial dates for Warren's lawsuit against DeSantis have not yet been set.
Anthony Izaguirre, The Associated Press