TAMPA, Fla. - Months after Florida's governor shocked the Tampa Bay region with his decision to suspend Andrew Warren from office, a federal judge ultimately dismissed the former Hillsborough state attorney's lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying this is a state matter.
In the filing, Judge Robert Hinkle pointed out that DeSantis violated the First Amendment by "considering Mr. Warren's speech on matters of public opinion." He added that while the suspension did violate the Florida Constitution, the case isn't under his jurisdiction.
The judge cites the 11th Amendment as his reason for dismissing the lawsuit in his court.
"Bottom line, it said that there were some violations of the federal constitution by the governor, but those violations did not rise to a level where the court felt like it warranted a ruling in the governor’s favor," explained Bjorn Brunvand, a criminal defense attorney who practices in Tampa Bay, who is not connected to the case. "Then, he said that under state law, there were some significant violations that may rise to that level, but he can’t do it. The 11th amendment basically prohibits him from issuing a declaratory or injunctive relief on state law for a public official."
During a press conference Friday, after the ruling was released, Warren vowed to continue his fight.
"The judge wrote, ‘If the facts matter, the governor can simply rescind the suspension.’ 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," Warren said.
After the ruling, Warren addressed the media and publicly challenged DeSantis
Brunvand said the judge's decision boils down to this:
"He’s saying, ‘[DeSantis], you’ve been a bad boy. You violated the constitution. You did some things you shouldn’t have done, but my hands are tied and I can’t do anything about it.'"
Warren has options for his next move. He can file a lawsuit in state court or go to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
Or he can run for re-election.
Which avenue Warren intends to pursue is unclear, but he vowed to press forward, ending his press conference saying "This is not over."
Brunvand said his best chance was probably in front of the federal district court and thinks Warren's defense team is weighing whether they should appeal. In his opinion, Brunvand doesn't think Warren has a "great chance to win" given that the appeals court is conservative-leaning.
"What’s troubling to me is what might happen down the road," Brunvand offered. "Is this going to be a pattern where the governor disagrees with certain aspects of what a prosecutor does, where they come in and remove them? It’s a troubling pattern. I think Andrew Warren was doing a great job. I think the current prosecutor is doing a great job. But the idea of the governor coming in and removing a prosecutor is frightening and could have a real chilling effect on having independent decisions."
If the defense team does decide to file a lawsuit in Florida court, they have the federal district judge's ruling.
"The state court could recognize it and act on it if they make the decision to challenge in state court," Brunvand said.
Suspended Florida State Attorney Andrew Warren holds a press conference discussing his recent lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on August 17, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. Warren was suspended of his duties by Governor Ron DeSantis on August 4t
The decision comes after a one-week trial in early December and five months after Gov. Ron DeSantis removed Warren from the job, citing "neglect of duty" after the twice-elected state attorney signed pledges not to prosecute cases involving abortion and gender-affirming care.
"The role of the state attorney is to apply the law and enforce the law, not pick and choose which laws you like and which laws you don't like," the governor said at the time. "This is a law and order state. We're not going to back down from that one inch. We're not going to allow locally-elected people to veto what our state has decreed through our legislative process."
Warren called his suspension unconstitutional, adding the governor never had the grounds to toss him out in the first place. The suspended state attorney said he was fired for something he said, not something he did. No case involving those issues ever made it to his desk.
Warren went further by saying he feels the governor was just trying to punish him for speaking out, violating his First Amendment rights.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Unite and Win Rally in support of Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano at the Wyndham Hotel on August 19, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During his visit to the state, DeSantis urge
So, he sued to get his job back. During his testimony, Warren testified that on Aug. 4, he got an email from the governor's office stating, "You have been suspended." Warren said he rushed back to his office and alerted his chief of staff of the email.
Minutes later, there was a knock at his door. A man who introduced himself as Larry Keefe, the governor's public safety czar, as well as two Hillsborough deputies, showed up to escort him out of his office. Warren said he was handed a written order by the governor but wasn't given time to read it.
During opening statements, DeSantis' legal team told the judge that Warren was suspended for neglect of duty and incompetence. Emails between DeSantis' staff were also presented in court, including a celebratory exchange after the suspension for the free media the move had garnered, totaling over 2.4 million.
Later, a video clip of Tucker Carlson and DeSantis was played for the judge. In the FOX interview, the governor refers to Warren as a "Soros prosecutor" who picks and chooses what laws to enforce. He's referring to billionaire Democratic donor George Soros, who is often a political target for conservatives.
Warren's team also played a FOX 13 News clip — the only TV interview he gave after signing the abortion pledge. In the story, Warren pointed out the pledge he signed was a "value" statement, not a blanket policy. He said each case would be evaluated on a case-by-case situation on the facts and the merits.
However, when Gary Weisman, the chief of staff for the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office took the stand on Thursday, he testified that he believed the pledge was a policy. The bench trial lasted for a week.
DeSantis appointed an acting state attorney, Suzy Lopez. When she stepped into the role, she began quickly setting a tone. She sent out a memo to her team of prosecutors announcing rollbacks. Certain policies her predecessor, Warren, had in place were gone. Prosecuting bike and pedestrian stops were back on the table.