A federal judge has dismissed the lawsuit brought by a former state attorney in Florida who sued Gov. Ron DeSantis for suspending him last year.
US District Judge Robert Hinkle said in his opinion Friday that DeSantis’ suspension of Andrew Warren, the ousted state attorney for Hillsborough County, violated the First Amendment and Florida’s Constitution, but as a federal judge, he could not rule against a state official based only on the violation of state law.
The Republican governor abruptly removed Warren, a twice-elected Democratic official, in August, alleging that the Tampa prosecutor had neglected the duties of the office by pledging not to use his office to go after people who seek and provide abortions or against doctors who provide gender-affirming care to transgender people. In his ruling, Hinkle wrote, “The allegation was false.”
The suspension of Warren was a particularly prominent example of DeSantis making aggressive use of his gubernatorial powers to escalate cultural battles and elevate his profile on the national stage. A state attorney is a democratically elected position, and the governor’s critics say his move to suspend Warren undermined the will of the Tampa-area voters who elected him as their top local prosecutor. DeSantis, who is considering running for president, announced the decision to remove Warren in a highly publicized news conference that his spokesperson suggested on Twitter the night before would cause “the liberal media meltdown of the year.”
Warren, in his lawsuit, was asking the judge to reinstate him to the role.
But Hinkle rejected Warren’s arguments that DeSantis’ actions violated the US Constitution’s free speech protections in a way that warranted a federal court’s intervention. Warren had argued that he had been suspended for protected speech – and specifically, public statements he made supporting abortion and LGBTQ rights. While those statements, and other factors that led to Warren’s suspension, were protected speech, DeSantis “would have made the same decision anyway, even without considering these things,” Hinkle concluded, pointing to Warren’s approach as a “reform prosecutor.”
“The First Amendment violations were not essential to the outcome and so do not entitle Mr. Warren to relief in this action,” Hinkle said. “The suspension also violated the Florida Constitution, and that violation did affect the outcome. But the 11th Amendment prohibits a federal court from awarding declaratory or injunctive relief of the kind at issue against a state official based only on a violation of state law.”
Warren nevertheless called on DeSantis to reinstate him hours after the ruling was issued.
“This is not over,” Warren said at a news conference in Tampa.
In his remarks, Warren did not elaborate on whether he would appeal the ruling, attempt a new challenge in state court or try his luck with the Republican-controlled state Senate, which has final approval when a governor removes an elected official from office. He did not take any questions and left after delivering the brief statement.
The evidence brought out at trial showed that the governor’s office was considering the political benefits of removing Warren. The trial record also showed that a DeSantis ally was tasked with finding reform prosecutors whose approach was at odds with the governor’s views on law enforcement.
In a statement to CNN following Hinkle’s ruling, DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said: “Today the court upheld the governor’s decision to suspend Andrew Warren from office for neglect of duty and incompetence.” However, Hinkle’s ruling, which spanned 59 pages, was often critical of the governor’s action and did not conclude that Warren had elected his duty or appeared incompetent.
Hinkle said in his opinion that there was “not a hint of misconduct by Mr. Warren” in the trial record and that the “assertion that Mr. Warren neglected his duty or was incompetent is incorrect.”
“If the facts matter, the Governor can simply rescind the suspension,” the judge added.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Warren said at his news conference. “Let’s see if the governor actually believes in the rule of law. Let’s see if the governor actually is a man of his word. Let’s see what kind of man the governor actually is.”
This headline and story have been updated.