DeSantis Removal of Elected Prosecutor Could Have Ripple Effect

    On August 4, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) suspended Andrew Warren, the elected top prosecutor for Hillsborough County (Tampa). State Attorney Warren had pledged not to prosecute people who seek or provide abortions, despite Florida’s new 15-week abortion ban. He pledged the same on gender-affirming care for transgender youth, which DeSantis is also seeking to ban.

    “To take a position that you have veto powers over the laws of the state is untenable,” DeSantis said, accusing Warren of “neglect of duty.” Warren replied that the governor was “trying to overthrow democracy here in Hillsborough County.”

    Warren, a Democrat, was never a radical. When he ran against Mark Ober to become state attorney in 2016, he took issue with some of Ober’s policies. Ober, a Republican, has a typical Southern conservative take on the death penalty, for example: Seek it as often as possible, constrained only by finances and chances of winning cases.

    Warren thought that was excessive. But he never promised categorically not to seek the death penalty. Unlike Aramis Ayala, his contemporary state attorney in Orlando, he simply sought it more rarely.

    When Ayala said no more death penalty ever, at least not while she was state attorney, it was seen as a call to war by Florida Republicans. Her capital murder cases were stripped. There was even talk she would be straight-up fired, under an archaic provision in the state (but not federal) constitution.

    This demonstrates the unique place abortion holds in right-wing politics.

    But she wasn’t, while Warren has been removed for announcing his policies after the recent repeal of Roe v. Wade.

    This demonstrates the unique place abortion holds in right-wing politics. State Attorney Ayala’s anti-death penalty announcement caused a tremendous storm, but a lot of it was bluster. She was permitted to finish out her term, despite fury from many family members of murder victims in her jurisdiction. She decided to not run again, seemingly because of the behavior of Republican leadership, but she was not forced to stay out.

    Punishing people for ending a pregnancy any time after 15 weeks is apparently more important to Republican leaders than the flawed notion of “getting justice” for murder victims and their families through executions. That’s despite most Americans disapproving of the Roe repeal, including over half of “moderate” Republicans.

    DeSantis, of course, is currently weighing a 2024 presidential bid, and has obvious motives to make headline-grabbing appeals to the Republican base.

    This also illuminates the fault lines between pro-decarceration Republicans (they exist!) and other criminal justice reformers. When Derek Cohen led the prominent right-leaning criminal justice reform nonprofit Right on Crime, he described why he and his ilk would not get involved in prosecutor elections.

    “Electing a reform-minded prosecutor is good,” he said. “But what is at risk of happening is getting a system where you have culture wars play out in the realm of prosecutorial discretion itself.”

    Compare that with what Governor Rick DeSantis said, in justification of his decision to fire Warren: “Our government is a government of laws, not a government of men.”

    These statements can be reconciled with each other. They both reflect an idea that the locally elected prosecutor’s role is not to use their discretion to maximize public safety, but to act as an unthinking tool of the legislative branch.

    DeSantis, who ran for governor as an opponent of any meaningful decarceration efforts, is harsher, however—contextualizing the Warren decision as a “rule of law” issue, with Warren himself failing in his duty. In their need to cooperate with leading Republicans, the likes of Cohen have to greenlight injustices that they nominally oppose.

    Wanting to replicate DeSantis’s “success,” Republican leaders in other states are now likely to create new statutes to allow easier removal of Democratic DAs.

    Ominously, DeSantis’s exhibition in Republican power politics could spell the beginning of the end of many years of work to make the corps of elected Southern prosecutors slightly less barbaric.

    Democratic DAs in conservative states are constantly performing a balancing act between their own convictions, local voters and their Republican overlords in state government. Warren had been doing that for years.

    But Warren is an elected official and a Democrat, and registered Democrats basically require pro-choice promises from any Democratic candidate for office. In the US House of Representatives, for example, there is one anti-abortion Democrat. Here, behaving as almost any Democrat would is apparently a fireable offense.

    In Florida, this happens thanks to a state constitutional quirk that allows the governor to remove locally elected law enforcement officials deemed to be neglecting their duties. But Republican leaders in other states they control have been looking for a way to axe all the pesky “progressive prosecutors.” Wanting to replicate DeSantis’s “success” in weaponizing abortion, they are now likely to create new statutes to allow easier removal of Democratic DAs.

    Before the Dobbs decision brought abortion criminalization back to the States, Southern progressive DAs had some real power to reduce incarceration in their local jurisdictions. Now, there is a real risk that their work will be reduced to “transforming courts into sites of symbolic resistance, and using law as a form of memory work.” That does little to minimize harm to real people in the short term. The victims of DeSantis’s decision will include people seeking abortions or gender-affirming care in Hillsborough County—and also many others.



    Photograph of DeSantis by Gage Skidmore via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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