January 30, 2023

A federal judge ruled on Friday that Governor Ron DeSantis had violated the Florida state constitution and the First Amendment when he suspended a county prosecutor last year. But the judge also found that he doesn’t have the power to put Warren back in office.

DeSantis suspended Andrew Warren, the Hillsborough County state attorney and a Democrat, last August through an executive order claiming that the prosecutor had created “blanket policies” not to bring certain cases — namely, those regarding abortion or transgender rights. In a suit filed two weeks later, Warren denied the allegation.

U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle found DeSantis’ excuse for targeting the Tampa-area prosecutor to be baseless. 

“The allegation was false,” Hinkle wrote in his ruling Friday. Warren, the judge found, had simply exercised prosecutorial discretion. 

“[T]he controlling motivations for the suspension were the interest in bringing down a reform prosecutor—a prosecutor whose performance did not match the Governor’s law-and-order agenda—and the political benefit that would result,” Hinkle wrote.

The ruling retold the story of how DeSantis’ stunt unfolded. It all started in December 2021, when DeSantis allegedly asked his senior adviser Larry Keefe to seek out reform-minded prosecutors who, “in the Governor’s right-leaning view, were not enforcing the law,” the judge wrote.

Keefe, the trial revealed, spoke with two associates in law enforcement who fingered Warren as a potential target. After looking the prosecutor up, Hinkle wrote, Keefe found that he’d signed on to four statements by the liberal prosecutor network Fair and Just Prosecution (FJP) regarding elections, the death penalty, transgender rights and abortion.

He’d also found a newspaper article showing that Warren received campaign funding from the Democratic Party which, in turn, had received funding, at some point, from—surprise!—George Soros.

DeSantis’ team made sure to highlight that tenuous connection as they went after Warren, the judge noted.

In his ruling, Hinkle stripped Keefe’s motivations down to the bone: He’d made “no effort” to determine whether the FJP statements had been adopted as a blanket policy in Warren’s jurisdiction, nor whether they’d affected a single case. “They had not,” Hinkle wrote.

For DeSantis’ team, the actual facts didn’t matter, the judge said. “His actual performance—not advocacy—as a reform prosecutor,” was key to the governor’s decision, Hinkle wrote, as was “the anticipated political benefit.”

“All that was needed was a pretext to justify the suspension under the Florida Constitution.”

Within a year, Warren was out: Gov. DeSantis held yet another showy news conference announcing his suspension on August 4, 2022, citing the FJP statements as evidence that Warren was shirking his duties as a state prosecutor through a blanket refusal to try certain cases. 

This was false, Hinkle wrote. “Mr. Warren’s well-established policy, followed in every case by every prosecutor in the office, was to exercise prosecutorial discretion at every stage of every case.”

But in the eternal words of Chester Bennington: In the end, it didn’t even matter. 

Hinkle concluded his ruling by stating that while Warren’s suspension was political and violated Florida’s constitution, the Eleventh Amendment prevents him from issuing the relief Warren seeks based only on a violation of state law. 

“And the suspension would have occurred even had there been no First Amendment violation,” he wrote. That violation in particular was “not essential to the outcome.” He dismissed Warren’s case as a result.

FJP — the progressive group that Warren had supported, ultimately providing the excuse for his ouster — expressed disappointment in the ruling on Friday afternoon. 

“The people of Florida have a right to expect that their vision of justice and the common sense reforms they embraced in twice electing Andrew Warren will matter and be respected by others, including the state’s governor,” FJP founder and executive director Miriam Aroni Krinsky said in a statement. 

“But sadly, today’s decision may simply pave the way for Governor DeSantis to remove more elected officials over nothing more than political differences.”

Read the ruling below:

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