TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - An elected Florida prosecutor who was removed from office by Gov. Ron DeSantis because of his positions on abortion and transgender rights filed suit Wednesday to get his job back, saying the Republican leader violated his First Amendment rights.
DeSantis said he suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren this month for signing a national pledge to not prosecute women and doctors for violating state abortion laws or families seeking treatments for transgender minors.
"If the governor's allowed to do this, what's left of democracy? If the governor's allowed to retaliate against me for speaking out, what's left of the First Amendment," Warren asked at a news conference in Tallahassee.
The lawsuit alleges that DeSantis did not identify any actual conduct involving criminal activity that would warrant a suspension and says the governor is punishing Warren for voicing positions that DeSantis opposes.
DeSantis, criticized by Democrats for signing abortion restrictions and bills seen as anti-LGBTQ into law, held a campaign-like event to announce Warren's suspension where supporters cheered the decision. The governor's office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday morning.
Now seeking re-election in November and positioning himself as a potential 2024 presidential candidate, the governor cited Warren's "neglect of duty" and other alleged violations.
In his executive order, DeSantis cited Warren's policy of not pursuing some lesser categories of crime, including "trespassing at a business location, disorderly conduct, disorderly intoxication, and prostitution."
The suspension was backed by several law enforcement officers including Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, who said Warren had been acting as a kind of "supreme authority" to decide "what crimes will be legal or illegal in our county."
Similar uses of prosecutorial discretion by progressives elected around the country in recent years have prompted some pushback.
In San Francisco, voters in June recalled Chesa Boudin, a former public defender who was elected district attorney in 2019 on a criminal justice reform platform. Boudin faced criticism over rising crime after declining to prosecute most drug offenses. A similar effort to recall the Los Angeles D.A. failed to garner enough signatures this week.
Warren, who was elected in 2016 by Tampa-area voters and re-elected in 2020, said the governor is overturning the will of the people who put him in office.
"The governor has attacked our democracy and it should worry everyone," Warren told reporters. "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 described the pledge circulated by prosecutors around the country as "a value statement," not a definitive decision on how he might handle any particular case. He also noted that Florida's new ban on abortions after 15 weeks of gestation has been ruled unconstitutional, and that the state doesn't even have a law against hormone treatments for transgender minors.
Warren's lawsuit says the suspension was retaliatory after he opposed the governor on a number of issues, including DeSantis' efforts to deny the restoration of voting rights for felons and create new crimes for public protests in response to the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the new abortion restrictions.
"Of course, DeSantis is free to express his views and his disagreements with Warren as often as he likes. Indeed, the Federal Constitution ensures that he is," the suit says. "DeSantis went too far."
The suit says Warren has an obligation to voters to say where he stands on such issues, and that as a prosecutor, he has the right to decide how the limited resources he has should be used to prosecute crimes. That priority should be on public safety, it said.
"The First Amendment protects the right of elected officials to speak out on matters of public controversy, and in fact it does so because it's so important that the voters who choose these elected officials know where they stand on these issues," Jean-Jacques Cabou, a lawyer for Warren, said in a phone interview.
Warren's suspension is now an issue in the governor's race as Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state's only statewide-elected Democrat, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist enter the final week of the primary to see who will challenge DeSantis.
"For this governor to weaponize his office and remove a state attorney - a prosecutor - who has prosecutorial discretion over which cases he brings forward and which he doesn't, this is the overreaching and overstepping of this governor," Fried said at a campaign event Tuesday night. "It is the most dangerous thing to our democracy that we have seen."