Federal judge finds DeSantis violated Florida’s Constitution, but dismisses lawsuit

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A federal judge ruled on Friday that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis violated the state’s Constitution by suspending a progressive, elected state attorney, but concluded that the law allows the decision to oust him to stand.

US District Judge Robert L. Hinkle also found that DeSantis(R) violated the First Amendment by considering Andrew Warren’s public comments on controversial topics like abortion and transgender care as “motivating factors” in the decision to suspend him.

But neither offered reason to reinstate Warren, offering DeSantis a legal victory.

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

“The record does not include an indication of misconduct by Mr. Warren,” Hinkle wrote. “As far as this record reflects, he was diligently and competently performing the job for which he was elected, just as he told voters he would… the assertion that Mr. Warren neglected his duty or was incompetent is incorrect.”

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

DeSantis’ decision to suspend the twice-elected attorney in August alarmed many who saw this as an overstatement by the governor. One of Warren’s lawyers called it “a political coup”.

The popular Florida governor – who ran for re-election in November and is widely considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate – justified the suspension by saying Warren had no right to “refuse to apply Florida law”.

The Tampa area prosecutor said he was being disciplined for exercising his right to free speech. Earlier this year, he signed two pledges written by Fair and Just Prosecution, an organization that advocates for reformist prosecutors. In a pledge, prosecutors pledged not to “criminalize reproductive health decisions.” The second statement made similar vows regarding people seeking transgender healthcare.

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

“As I’ve said from the beginning, there’s a lot more at stake than my job,” Warren told a news conference the morning of the trial’s opening. “Not only are we fighting to do the job I was elected to do, I’m fighting for the rights of voters across Florida to have the elected representatives of their choice.”

In his trial testimony, Warren said the pledges he signed were never put into practice or adopted as official policy. Two assistant state attorneys in Warren’s office supported this claim, testifying that they did not consider the statements a reflection of actual policy. But Warren’s chief of staff said he thought the pledge to uphold abortion rights was tantamount to a policy directive.

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

Warren was also instrumental in helping ex-convicts regain their voting rights after DeSantis signed legal restrictions to 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 actions such as those of a “woke up” prosecutor.

The trial provided a rare glimpse into the inner workings of DeSantis and his team. Evidence and public records showed that the governor’s office was enthusiastic about the “completely free media” that resulted from the press conference at which he announced the suspension. Careful tabulations by staff estimated that the governor, who was running for re-election at the time, garnered media coverage worth $2.4 million.

The testimony also showed that although DeSantis said he asked his team for a report of any prosecutors deemed to be “taking the law into their own hands”, the focus was on Warren from the beginning.

Larry Keefe, a former Florida U.S. Attorney whom DeSantis named the state’s “security czar,” testified that he consulted with some Republican state attorneys and sheriffs, as well as Republican donors from the Tampa area, but did not conduct an extensive investigation. .

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

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

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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