In his executive order, DeSantis accused Warren of “neglect of duty” and “incompetence” as the state attorney of Hillsborough County.
“To take a position that you have veto powers over the laws of the state is untenable,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Tampa surrounded by law enforcement.
Warren responded hours later, accusing DeSantis of “trying to overthrow democracy here in Hillsborough County.”
The move by DeSantis, a Republican, to remove a Democrat twice elected by Hillsborough voters drew an immediate and sharp rebuke from Democratic state lawmakers and officials. Minority Leader Sen. Lauren Book said DeSantis was “behaving more like a dictator than ‘America’s governor.'” And Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democratic candidate for governor, called Warren’s suspension “a politically motivated attack on a universally respected state attorney democratically elected to exercise prosecutorial discretion.”
“Ron DeSantis is a pathetic bully,” Fried said.
DeSantis said the decision to suspend Warren came after he directed staff to review whether any state attorneys in Florida had taken it “upon themselves to determine which laws they like and will enforce,” after watching prosecutors in other states decline to press charges for certain crimes. That review led them to Warren, who has become a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform and overturning wrongful convictions.
“The governor should not have had to come to Hillsborough County and clean up our mess,” former Tampa police chief Brian Dugan said during the press conference. “That’s really what it comes down to.”
Under Florida law, a governor can remove “any county officer” for malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony. The Florida Senate has the power to reinstate a suspended official or remove that person from office.
“It’s not a dereliction of duty,” Warren told CNN’s Laura Coates Thursday evening. “In fact, it’s not even talking about things that I’ve done in the office. It is talking about things I may do in the future… I mean this is out of, like, 1984 Orwellian thought police.”
Warren maintained he’s always used his prosecutorial discretion to consider charges on a “case-by-case” basis.
DeSantis appointed Lopez to serve as state attorney during Warren’s suspension. He previously appointed Lopez to circuit court judge in Hillsborough County. DeSantis told reporters that he did not speak to Warren ahead of the announcement.
Warren was first elected to state attorney in 2016, defeating a longtime Republican incumbent in a narrow race that predicted the bellwether Florida county’s leftward turn. He was reelected in 2020, winning a higher percentage of the vote in Hillsborough County than President Joe Biden.
During his first years in office, Warren kept a relatively low profile as he quietly modernized the office and adopted criminal justice reforms. In 2018, he endorsed the reelection campaign of the county’s elected Republican sheriff, Chad Chronister, and often held press conferences with law enforcement. In turn, Chronister praised Warren in the months leading up to the Democrat’s campaign for a second term.
But Chronister hosted Thursday’s press conference at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and delivered a biting critique of Warren while standing next to DeSantis. (Chronister’s wife, Nicole DeBartolo, and father-in-law, Edward DeBartolo, a former NFL owner granted a presidential pardon by Donald Trump, have donated a combined $472,000 to DeSantis’ reelection campaign.)
Warren grew increasingly critical of DeSantis during the pandemic. Early in the coronavirus outbreak, he publicly bashed the governor’s decision to allow megachurches to operate in Florida just days after the arrest of a Tampa pastor who defiantly held in-person service. Later that summer, Warren announced he wouldn’t prosecute 67 people arrested in a protest following the death of George Floyd.
But it was Warren’s foray into the country’s political divide over transgender and abortion care that sparked Thursday’s action from DeSantis. Warren last year joined dozens of local and state prosecutor who signed onto a letter authored by the progressive organization Fair and Just Prosecution denouncing laws that criminalize doctors that provide gender affirming care for transgender people. After the US Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade and eliminate constitutional protections for abortion, Warren signed another letter from Fair and Justice promising to use discretion not to use “limited criminal legal system resources” to prosecute those who seek, provide or support abortions.
“Those are really, I think, egregious and again, it’s beyond just exercising discretion,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis has used his power to remove certain elected officials more than his predecessors. In one of his first actions as governor, DeSantis suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who oversaw the police response to the deadly mass shooting at a Parkland high school.
But past suspensions were a result of actions already taken by elected officials. Warren’s suspension is in part for actions yet to be taken. Notably, the state’s new abortion law is facing a legal challenge and one judge said it violated the state’s constitutional, though a higher court said otherwise.
Warren said he had not read DeSantis’ executive order but he said he “heard it contains a lot of conjecture and lies.”
“Just based on the governor’s track record with unconstitutional orders,” Warren said, “I have a feeling that this is going to be just as unconstitutional.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.