A federal judge is set to rule on whether DeSantis unlawfully suspended the prosecutor

A federal judge on Thursday urged attorneys for Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to explain why the governor’s recent suspension of a prosecutor who he deemed “woke” was not an unlawful and politically motivated excess of executive power.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said he would decide in the coming weeks whether the governor had the authority to suspend Andrew Warren, a Democrat who was reelected last year as the chief prosecutor in Tampa and surrounding Hillsborough County after stepping up a platform of criminal justice reform.

“This whole thing is filled to the brim with animus towards [reform-minded] Prosecutors,” Hinkle said on the final day of a three-day trial in Tallahassee.

But DeSantis’ attorneys insisted in court that Governor Warren, who was first elected to his position in 2016, didn’t suspend because of it.

“We have someone here who, based on his own testimony, did not want to enforce the law,” DeSantis attorney George Levesque told the judge.

According to the executive order suspending Warren in August, the prosecutor demonstrated “incompetence and willful disregard for his duties” by implementing certain “alleged non-enforcement policies” and co-signing public statements by a left-leaning advocacy group about state laws criminalizing gender-affirming care and abortions.

“[We] We commit to using our reasonable discretion to refrain from criminal prosecution of those who seek, perform or assist in abortion,” said a statement issued on Roe v. Wade and left the issue of abortion rights to the states.

Suspended District Attorney Andrew Warren (center) arrives with his legal team, including David O’Neil (left), at U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, Florida, on December 1, 2022.

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Following his suspension, Warren filed a federal lawsuit in August, asking a judge to reinstate him as a prosecutor. Hinkle, a Clinton appointee, decides the case without a jury.

During this week’s trial, Hinkle said the outcome of the case depended on the “real reason” for Warren’s suspension: was it about Warren’s conduct — a lawful basis — or was it really about his speech violating Warren’s First Amendment rights would ?

Hinkle suggested that the curated text of the executive order alone may not tell “the whole story” about what really motivated Warren’s suspension.

An attorney for Warren, David O’Neil, told Hinkle that Warren’s suspension was a “political hit” aimed at his rights to free speech.

“Mr. Warren was suspended from his office because of what he said and what he believed,” O’Neil said.

The statements signed by Warren — which were also endorsed by dozens of prosecutors from other parts of the country — are “purely symbolic, a pure expression of values,” O’Neil said.

According to a three-day testimony, Larry Keefe, the so-called “public safety czar,” DeSantis asked people he knew in the law enforcement community if there were any prosecutors who refused to enforce the law.

“All roads led to Mr. Warren,” Keefe testified. A Republican sheriff in Warren’s own county even sent Keefe a package flagging two of Warren’s policies he found concerning, including one policy — issued in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — and urging prosecutors to only invite charges low-level charges such as trespassing or public intoxication under certain circumstances.

As a witness, Keefe acknowledged that of those whose party affiliations he knew, all but one of the people he spoke to early on about Warren were Republicans.

Then, months later, when the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade, Warren signed the abortion-related statement by the group Fair and Just Prosecution.

Pressuring DeSantis’ attorneys, Hinkle said “one possible take on the facts” is that DeSantis is “sincere” about “more lenient,” liberal-minded prosecutors, and “it would be good policy to bring one down.” ‘ he mentioned to Keefe, who made her ‘looking for’.

“He’ll find one,” Hinkle said. “He’s conducting a very one-sided investigation… [and then] He also finds the abortion declaration. Bingo.”

But at least one senior attorney in DeSantis’ office who helped draft Warren’s suspension testified that the abortion-related statement and the other Fair and Just Prosecution statement on transgender issues did not lead him to recommend Warren’s suspension .

A major point of contention throughout the trial was whether Warren’s signature—and official title—on the fair and just prosecution’s statements tantamount to official policy.

The signing of the abortion-related statement “was an announcement that we would not be prosecuting cases under the law,” and it told Hillsborough County prosecutors “what Mr. Warren wanted from them,” Warren’s former chief of staff Gary Weisman said in court.

Chief Counsel for the Governor’s Office, General Counsel Ryan Newman, agreed, saying that any “reasonable person” would consider the statements Warren signed as “promises,” not only justifying Warren’s suspension, but under Florida state law do lawfully.

Warren himself denied that the statements reflected any sort of policy or promise, testifying that he signed them because he “agreed with the general idea” behind them.

To emphasize this point, O’Neil noted that Warren never circulated the statements he signed — as he would an official policy — and that the statements never concerned “a single” case, since not an abortion-related case has ever been referred to Warren prosecutors, and the state of Florida doesn’t even have a gender-affirming healthcare law.

When DeSantis announced Warren’s suspension in August, he accused Warren of promoting an agenda that was “essentially ‘woke'” and elevating his “personal idea of, quote, ‘social justice’ above what the law requires of you.” required”.

During his testimony this week, Warren defended his tenure, saying the policies he implemented relate to efficiency and “fairness” in the criminal justice system and an attempt to “steer petty offenders away from the system’s downward spiral.” “

PHOTO: The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida is shown on November 29, 2022 in Tallahassee, Florida.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida is shown on November 29, 2022 in Tallahassee, Florida.

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Warren’s attorney told the judge that maintaining Warren’s suspension would have a “deterrent” effect on the freedom of speech of other elected officials.

“What other prosecutor will comment on political issues that the defendant disagrees with?” he has asked.

However, prosecutors said Warren’s actions set him apart from other elected prosecutors in Florida.

“It’s not like everyone [reform-minded] Lawyer’s kind of on the chopping block,” Newman said.

DeSantis declined to testify in his own defense, which Hinkle said left “a huge hole in the middle of [the governor’s] Case.”

The judge also expressed concern that no one associated with DeSantis has contacted Warren or any of his associates to inquire about his office’s practices and policies.

“You understand he’s not getting paid — they took his job,” the judge told Newman while he was on the witness stand. “Didn’t you think you owed me [Warren] any due process before you suspended him for months? … Do you at least pick up the phone and give him a call?”

Nonetheless, Hinkle made it clear that while he criticizes the course of events, he did not decide whether the suspension was unlawful.

“I don’t know who’s going to win,” the judge said.

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