Even though Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren last month, the elected top prosecutor’s political profile has actually grown. The suspension has gotten him coverage in national publications and established him as a foil to DeSantis, whose national reputation continues to grow ahead of a possible 2024 presidential run.
Warren, who portrayed himself as a progressive, had signed two statements pledging not to use his office to prosecute women who get abortions or those seeking what’s known as gender-affirming medical treatments. DeSantis, who signed a ban on abortions after 15 weeks and now is working to limit access to transgender-related treatments, took exception and cited the statements in his suspension. Warren, however, didn’t throw in the towel. He filed a federal lawsuit that the suspension violates his free speech rights. The suit put a pause on the Florida Senate’s role, since the governor can suspend, but the Senate must vote to remove Warren from office.
The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam recently spoke with Warren about his suspension, among other things, on City & State Florida’s “Deeper Dive with Dara” podcast, released earlier this week. What follows are five of the questions asked; questions have been rephrased for clarity and answers were edited for brevity:
DeSantis’ decision to suspend an elected official who hasn’t committed a crime is rare. He cited the pledge you signed not to enforce state laws that ban abortion, among other things. What’s your take on how this went down?
This is rare, if not unprecedented. I'm a twice elected (state attorney) who spent my entire career locking up violent criminals and fraudsters. And without warning I was forced out of my office by an armed deputy, removed from my elected position and replaced with an ally of the governor who's never received a single vote for a single office. DeSantis has cited zero examples where I've declined to follow the law. And he can't, because there is no instance where I've declined to follow the law.
This is really about the fact that I opposed two of his favorite culture war issues. I spoke out on abortion and I spoke up for transgender Floridians. No case on either of those two issues has ever come before me or my office. In fact, the abortion law was held unconstitutional by the first and only court that's looked at it. There is no law about transgender healthcare on the books. So I'm being accused of violating laws that don't exist. I mean, this is how absurd the governor's claims are. I’m being removed for not enforcing phantom laws. One that’s unconstitutional, the other that doesn't exist.
The Senate will likely back DeSantis. Is that part of the reason you filed your lawsuit about the suspension?
I'm not sure what the Senate will do. But the Senate, by law, only becomes the sort-of jury of what happened if there's a legal basis for the suspension. Here, there's not. That's why we filed suit. The Senate is not going to do anything until we see how this lawsuit plays out.
… Let's be clear about the federal challenge that was filed. The governor broke two laws here. One, he violated my First Amendment rights by retaliating against me for speaking out on abortion and for standing up for transgender Floridians – two issues that he just politically disagrees with me on. And secondly, he abused his power under the Florida Constitution to remove me without legal justification. So we're fighting back against this because we want to make sure – and this is the essence of the lawsuit – we want to make sure that even though Ron DeSantis is the governor of Florida, that the U.S. Constitution still has meaning, that the Florida Constitution still has meaning and that elections still have meaning.
Since DeSantis suspended you, he has suspended four Broward County School Board members as a result of a grand jury report that has been criticized as lopsided. What are your thoughts on those suspensions?
I'm not going to speculate about that. But we can look at who those people were replaced with. You had four women replaced by four men. You had four Democrats replaced by four Republicans in a county that's nearly 50% Democratic and only 20% or so Republican. The governor made the school board, which was representative of the makeup of the county, (into) 5-4 (in favor of) Republicans.
The suspended members had backgrounds in education. The four new acting members, they don't. So there’s just a lot of concern there. And again, I'm not getting into the legal basis for whether he could or could not have done it. But when you have a situation where the governor is flexing his political power to take elected officials out of office and put in the people that he wants in office, what's the point of having elections anymore?
Shifting gears, you were a supporter of the state constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felons, but those looking to get their rights restored have faced difficulty identifying to whom and how much they owe court costs and fees. Do you support that requirement?
I supported Amendment 4 for several reasons. First and foremost, research has shown that when people have their rights restored, including the right to vote, they're more likely to become law abiding citizens and to be productively engaged in the community. Amendment 4 was a way to do that. It was also just the right thing to do. Florida was one of only three or four states in the country that permanently disenfranchised anyone convicted of a crime. Most people convicted of felonies in Florida are convicted of third degree felonies. The most common third degree felony we have are traffic offenses, people driving on a suspended license, crimes similar to that.
After it passed, the Legislature, in a bill signed by the governor, passed a law that made it a lot more difficult by implementing the fee requirement. That law basically conditions the ability to vote on how much money you have, which is wrong. People should either get the right to vote back or they shouldn't. It shouldn't be a matter of, well, you owe $7,000 from fines that you didn't pay from 20 years ago, therefore, you can't vote. That sure sounds a lot like a poll tax, which is unconstitutional.
On top of that, the state of Florida can't even tell you when you (ask), “OK, I have the money to pay, and I want to pay to get my rights back.” And the state says, “Sorry, we can't tell you how much you owe.” Well then, what are you supposed to do? And then this was just a very frustrating law that really undermined the spirit of Amendment 4 that more than 60% of Floridians voted for. It's hard to get 60% of people … to agree that the sky is blue these days. So when people say with one voice, we want people to have this chance to return to our society, the Legislature should be trying to facilitate that, not to undermine it.
Finally, why should Florida residents be concerned about your suspension?
There's so much more at stake than my job. This is about defending our democracy. Because regardless of what party you belong to, or who you vote for, your vote matters. That is the sacred trust of our democracy. And no elected official, no governor has the right to throw out your vote. But that's what's happening here. The governor is trying to throw out the votes of hundreds of thousands of residents of Hillsborough County who voted for me. He’s trying to overturn the results of a fair and free election. And the problem is, if he gets away with it, what's left of our democracy?