Florida – The ongoing legal dispute between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren took a new turn as DeSantis’ legal team sought a full federal appeals court hearing. The case, which has garnered national attention, delves into the complexities of free speech, political ideologies, and the governor’s supervisory powers.
Governor’s Appeal for “En Banc” Hearing
Governor DeSantis’ lawyers filed a 41-page petition with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, challenging a decision by a three-judge panel that questions the governor’s authority to suspend elected officials. The petition argues that the panel’s opinion conflicts with established legal precedents and defends DeSantis’ actions as justified, stating, “The panel opinion strikes an unprecedented blow against a state’s sovereign interest in managing its officials and ensuring the faithful execution of its laws.”
The Grounds for Suspension
In August 2022, Governor DeSantis suspended Warren, citing “incompetence and willful defiance of his duties.” The executive order referenced Warren’s signing of a national organization’s statement opposing the prosecution of abortion cases and criticizing laws restricting care for transgender people. Additionally, DeSantis pointed to Warren’s policies that could limit prosecution in certain low-level offenses and cases related to bicycle and pedestrian stops by police.
Warren’s Lawsuit and First Amendment Rights
Warren filed a lawsuit, claiming his suspension violated his First Amendment rights. While U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle initially allowed the suspension to stand, the appeals-court panel vacated this ruling, instructing Hinkle to reconsider certain aspects of the case. The panel found that two factors cited by DeSantis—Warren’s signing of the abortion statement and the political benefit to DeSantis of suspending a progressive prosecutor—were protected under the First Amendment. This protection extends to decisions made “solely on political benefit,” as the panel interpreted DeSantis’ actions to be driven by Warren’s political ideology.
DeSantis’ Legal Argument
However, DeSantis’ legal team contends that the panel’s decision undermines the state’s ability to supervise officials who refuse to enforce state laws. They argue that the ruling misconstrues the First Amendment, potentially transforming it from a protective measure to a tool against the governor’s disciplinary decisions.
The case has significant implications for the upcoming state attorney election. Warren initially decided not to run for re-election, citing the risks of repeat suspension by DeSantis. However, subsequent developments in the legal battle have left open the possibility of his candidacy.
While the governor has the authority to suspend public officials, the Florida Senate ultimately decides on their removal. The Senate has paused its decision on Warren’s case, awaiting the outcome of the legal proceedings.
As the debate continues, the case underscores the delicate balance between political authority, free speech, and the enforcement of state laws. The full federal appeals court’s response to DeSantis’ petition and its potential implications for Florida’s political landscape and Warren’s career remain pivotal points of interest.