A federal judge found that DeSantis violated the Florida constitution, but dismissed the case


A federal judge ruled Friday that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis violated the state constitution when he suspended an elected, progressive-minded state attorney, but concluded that the law ultimately allows the suspension to stand.

U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle also found that DeSantis (R) violated the First Amendment by addressing Andrew Warren’s public remarks on controversial topics such as abortion and transgender care as “motivating factors” in the decision to remove him.

But neither offered a case for Warren’s reinstatement, offering DeSantis a legal victory.

DeSantis Communications Director Taryn Fenske called it “a win for the governor and a win for the people of Florida.” Nevertheless, Hinkle’s 59-page order found errors in the actions of DeSantis and his team, as well as in the case and facts they brought to trial.

“The record contains no hint of misconduct on the part of Mr. Warren,” Hinkle wrote. “As far as this record reflects, he diligently and competently did the job he was elected to do, largely in the way he told the voters he would do it … the allegation that Mr. Warren neglected his duty or was was incompetent is incorrect.”

Although Hinkle found no wrongdoing on Warren’s part, he concluded that it was a state matter.

DeSantis’ decision to remove the twice-elected prosecutor in August alarmed many who saw it as an overreach on the part of the governor. One of Warren’s lawyers called it a “political hit.”

Florida’s popular governor — who is running for re-election in November and is widely seen as a potential 2024 presidential candidate — justified the suspension, saying Warren had no right to “refuse to enforce Florida law.”

The Tampa prosecutor said he was being punished for exercising his right to free speech. Earlier in the year he signed two pledges written by Fair and Just Prosecution, an organization that advocates for reform-minded prosecutors. In one pledge, prosecutors promised not to “criminalize reproductive health decisions.” The second statement made similar vows regarding people seeking transgender health care.

Warren, who was the first witness in the five-day non-injury trial in late November in Tallahassee, said the problem goes beyond him.

“As I’ve said from the beginning, the stake is much more than my job,” Warren said at a news conference the morning the lawsuit began. “We’re not just fighting to do the job I was elected to do, I’m fighting for the rights of voters across Florida to have the elected officials of their choice.”

In his trial testimony, Warren said the pledges he signed were never acted upon or adopted as official policy. Two assistant state attorneys in Warren’s office supported that claim, testifying that they did not consider the statements to reflect actual policy. But Warren’s chief of staff said he believed the pledge to protect abortion rights amounted to a political directive.

In announcing the suspension, DeSantis also pointed to Warren’s decision not to prosecute 67 protesters arrested for unlawful assembly during demonstrations over the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Warren was also instrumental in helping ex-prisoners regain their right to vote after DeSantis signed into law limits on a voter-approved constitutional amendment allowing them to register to vote. The prosecutor also created a conviction review office to review claims of innocence.

DeSantis criticized such actions as those of a “woke” prosecutor.

The trial provided a rare look inside the work of DeSantis and his team. Evidence and public records show that the governor’s office was thrilled by the “completely free earned media” that resulted from the news conference where he announced the shutdown. Careful staff spreadsheets estimated that the governor, who was running for re-election at the time, had earned $2.4 million worth of media coverage.

Testimony also showed that while DeSantis said he asked his staff for a report on any prosecutors perceived to be “taking the law into their own hands,” the focus was on Warren from the beginning.

Larry Keefe, a former U.S. attorney in Florida whom DeSantis called the state’s “safety czar,” testified that he consulted with several Republican state attorneys and sheriffs, as well as the Tampa-area GOP donorsbut did not conduct a thorough investigation.

During the trial, Warren’s attorneys he asked DeSantis staff members what the governor means when he calls people “woke.”

“To me, that means someone who believes there are systemic injustices in the criminal justice system, and on that basis they can refuse to fully enforce and uphold the law,” said Ryan Newman, DeSantis’ general counsel.

Newman added that “it would be the belief that there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.”

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