US judge rules DeSantis violated Constitution but dismisses case

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis violated US and state constitutions in removing elected state attorney, judge finds.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaks at an outdoor podium
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks outside the Old Capitol building in Tallahassee after his inauguration to a second term this January [File: Lynne Sladky/AP Photo]

A United States judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis after the prominent Republican removed an elected official from office over his stance on abortion and transgender rights.

Robert Hinkle, a federal judge for the northern district of Florida, ruled on Friday that DeSantis had violated the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees free speech, as well as the state constitution, when he suspended State Attorney Andrew Warren in August 2022.

But Hinkle ultimately decided that the court lacked the authority to reinstate Hinkle or award “relief” against a state official.

“The suspension would have occurred even had there been no First Amendment violation,” the judge said in his decision.

Still, Hinkle took aim at the grounds DeSantis had used to remove Warren from office.

DeSantis – who is expected to seek the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential elections – had accused the Democratic state attorney of applying a blanket ban on prosecuting those who violated state abortion laws or sought gender-affirming care for teens.

DeSantis then suspended Warren on the grounds of “dereliction of duty” and other violations.

“The constitution of Florida has vested the veto power in the governor, not individual state attorneys,” DeSantis said in a statement in August when he suspended Warren from office.

“When you flagrantly violate your oath of office, when you make yourself above the law, you have violated your duty.”

Warren filed a federal lawsuit that same month against DeSantis in a bid to get his job as state attorney back. In Friday’s decision, Hinkle wrote that DeSantis’s accusations had misrepresented Warren’s stance.

DeSantis at a press conference, surrounded by law enforcement and officials
DeSantis announced he would suspend Warren, the Hillsborough County state attorney, on August 4, 2022 [File: Chris O’Meara/AP Photo]

“The allegation was false,” Hinkle said. “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. Any reasonable investigation would have confirmed this.”

Warren had signed a statement of protest on the same day in June 2022 that the US Supreme Court overturned its landmark Roe v Wade decision, ending federal protection of abortion as a constitutional right.

That statement (PDF) – authored by the group Fair and Just Prosecution and signed by more than 80 district and state attorneys – included a commitment to “refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide or support abortions”.

It also said its signatories would “decline to use our offices’ resources to criminalise reproductive health decisions”. But it underscored the prosecutors’ ability to exercise discretion over individual cases, emphasising the diversity of opinions held on the subject.

Warren has since described the pledge as a “value statement” rather than a binding framework for how he might approach cases.

He pointed out in his lawsuit that Florida’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy had been ruled unconstitutional at the time. The state also did not have a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors until several months after Warren’s dismissal.

The Florida medical board issued its ban in November, preventing transgender youth from accessing puberty blockers, hormone therapy or surgery to address gender dysphoria.

In his lawsuit, Warren asserted he had a duty to voters to explain his stance on issues and that his elected position gave him discretion over how to allocate resources.

“The governor has attacked our democracy and it should worry everyone,” Warren told reporters in August after his removal from office.

“If the governor’s attempt to unilaterally overturn an election is allowed to stand, it threatens to undermine the integrity and outcome of elections across our state for years to come.”

Warren, a former federal prosecutor, had been a dark-horse candidate in 2016 when he was first elected to the state attorney’s position, beating Republican incumbent Mark Ober to represent Hillsborough County, a populous part of the state that includes the Tampa metropolitan area.

Re-elected in 2020, Warren has sparred with DeSantis and other Florida conservatives over issues including coronavirus restrictions and a bill giving law enforcement broader discretion when policing protests.

Just this week, Warren slammed a recent DeSantis order blocking a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies from being taught in Florida high schools. “It’s a bad sign for democracy when we ban teaching the truth of our own history,” he wrote on Twitter.

DeSantis was himself considered a long-shot candidate when he first ran for the governor’s seat in 2018, narrowly defeating Democrat Andrew Gillum.

He has since become one of the leading voices in the Republican Party, sailing to reelection with double-digit margins in last November’s midterms.

It was the largest margin of victory for any Florida gubernatorial candidate in 40 years, positioning Florida as an increasingly red state in US politics.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies