Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, R, suspended the Tampa Bay area's top state prosecutor Thursday after he vowed not to prosecute potential crimes related to abortion restrictions or gender-affirming care for minors.
Legal experts described the decision to suspend Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, D, as alarming because it appears to be punishing an elected official exercising prosecutorial discretion on issues the governor disagrees with.
"It's shocking and disturbing behavior," said University of Miami law professor Tamara Lave. "[Warren is] a democratically elected official put in that office by voters. They elected him twice. If his constituents don't like what he was doing, they have the ability to vote him out of office."
Warren was first elected in 2016, and reelected in 2020. He signed a pledge in June with dozens of other prosecutors from around the country that said they would "refrain from using limited criminal legal system resources to criminalize personal medical decisions."
Warren signed a similar pledge in 2021 that stated prosecutors would "use our discretion and not promote the criminalization of gender-affirming healthcare or transgender people."
DeSantis signed into law this year a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest. A lawsuit claiming the ban violates the right to privacy in the Florida constitution is being heard on appeal.
While there currently is no ban in the state on gender-affirming surgery, DeSantis said Warren shouldn't preemptively say he would not prosecute if a law is passed.
DeSantis, surrounded by law enforcement officers at a news conference at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in Tampa on Thursday, said Warren was trying to "nullify" state laws.
"This prosecutor, this state attorney for this judicial circuit, Andrew Warren, has put himself publicly above the law," DeSantis said.
DeSantis said Warren had a "very, very troubling record."
Warren has taken other actions that DeSantis criticized, including declining to prosecute 67 protesters arrested for unlawful assembly during the demonstrations over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020.
Warren was also instrumental in helping formerly incarcerated people regain their voting rights after DeSantis signed into law restrictions to a voter-approved constitutional amendment allowing them to register to vote.
Warren also created a conviction review office to examine innocence claims. During a news conference that had been scheduled Thursday before DeSantis suspended him, Warren announced the success of one of those cases. After leading an investigation that in 2020 freed a man wrongly convicted of murder, Warren's staff continued to pursue the case, and on Thursday he announced that an examination of DNA linked two other men, currently in prison, to that murder, as well as other murders in the area in 1983.
Linda Sheffield, a niece of Linda Lansen, one of the victims, appeared alongside Warren and thanked him for getting justice for her family after four decades.
"I keep saying thank you to him, and he keeps saying no. But it's true, we need this. We need this here," Sheffield said. "We also need it all over the state."
Warren was asked at the news conference what he was doing when he learned that DeSantis had suspended him.
"I was doing the work that I was elected to do as a state attorney," Warren said. "I was focused on delivering justice to Linda and her family that they've been waiting 39 years to get . . . and I was overseeing the office of 300 people that keeps 1.5 million people safe in Hillsborough County. So the governor wants to do his side show with his cronies, I'm the one who's upholding the law and keeping the community safe."
In his order suspending Warren, DeSantis said the prosecutor "demonstrated his incompetence and willful defiance of his duties" when he signed the pledge to "use our discretion and not promote the criminalization of gender-affirming healthcare or transgender people."
DeSantis supporters in the GOP-led Florida legislature applauded the governor's move. Incoming state House speaker Paul Renner tweeted that state attorneys "don't get to choose which laws you uphold . . . that's the California way."
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, leader of the Florida House Democrats, called the suspension "a mean-spirited political stunt." Driskell, who is from Tampa, said Warren has done a good job as state attorney.
"Andrew Warren's statements are well within his prosecutorial discretion," Driskell said. "I don't believe the governor has authority to remove him just because of decisions he doesn't agree with. Voters put Andrew Warren in office. We have a governor who doesn't respect representative democracy."
Warren said at the Thursday afternoon news conference that he still considered himself to be the state attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit and that he hadn't read DeSantis's order suspending him.
"And just based on the governor's track record with unconstitutional orders, I have a feeling that this is going to be just as unconstitutional as the 15-week ban on abortion, the anti-protest law and [a] dozen other things," Warren said. "The governor is trying to overthrow the results of a fair and free election. . . . This is the governor trying to overthrow democracy here in Hillsborough County."