DeSantis Removal of Elected Reform Prosecutor Signals New Normal

    State Attorney Monique Worrell of Orlando, Florida, has not been radical, or even close. Elected in 2020 after her predecessor, Aramis Ayala, opted to not run again, she mainly attempted to reform the criminal-legal system around the edges without announcing sweeping non-prosecution policies. And she still sought the death penalty, an inhuman punishment that no other Western democracy uses.

    Yet on August 9, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), announced he was suspending the Democratic prosecutor for allegedly avoiding mandatory minimums for drug charges and harsh punishments for children charged with crimes.

    It’s undoubtedly an escalation in the war on reform prosecutors; DeSantis’s predecessor, current US Senator Rick Scott, only removed capital murder cases from Ayala in retaliation for her not seeking the death penalty.

    DeSantis’s action shows that it does not matter if reformist prosecutors perform “moderation” for appeasement purposes in conservative states.

    Worrell arguably sometimes overstated her reform bona fides, but the balancing act she tried to perform reflected the tightrope that pro-reform prosecutors in conservative states may feel they have to walk.

    On one hand, prosecutors like Worrell need to show the reformist wing of the electorate that they mean business when it comes to curtailing abuses and shrinking bloated jail and prison populations. On the other hand, if they’re perceived to cross the line, they can easily be struck down by conservative legislative majorities and governors, who in many states have tremendous powers to get rid of locally elected politicians.

    DeSantis’s action shows that it does not matter if reformist prosecutors perform “moderation” for appeasement purposes in conservative states. They will be punished anyway, especially if that governor has a presidential campaign going. Removing Democratic politicians is an easy way for a Republican to win partisan applause.

    This, of course, does not work the other way around. In New Jersey, a state with similarly broad gubernatorial powers to ax local head prosecutors, research suggests that no Democratic governor has ever fired a Republican county prosecutor. Whereas this is the second time a single Republican governor—Florida’s DeSantis—has gotten rid of a Democratic DA he does not like in about one year.

     “These organized attacks on prosecutorial discretion are a one-way ratchet.”

    In August 2022, he suspended State Attorney Andrew Warren of Hillsborough County (Tampa), after Warren pledged not to prosecute people who seek or provide abortions or gender-affirming care, in the face of state criminalization.

     “These organized attacks on prosecutorial discretion are a one-way ratchet,” responded Rachel Marshall, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution think tank. “We have not seen efforts to undermine prosecutorial discretion when prosecutors seek overly harsh sentences, are responsible for egregious wrongful convictions, or decline to hold those in power accountable. Instead, is it only when prosecutors respond to their community demands for criminal justice reform that we see these bad faith restrictions on prosecutorial independence.”

    DeSantis is currently polling in a distant second place to Donald Trump among Republican presidential hopefuls for 2024. His penchant for firing prosecutors over politics—especially over the anecdata and hype-driven “progressive” and “woke” labels that DAs like Monique Worrell have received—cannot be divorced from this context.

    When such moves run little risk of offending anyone other than people who would never vote for you anyway, it seems likely that this behavior will become increasingly normalized.

    But the implications of his actions stretch beyond a single presidential election. It seems reasonable to think that supporters of DeSantis see his unilateral destruction of elected officials on the other side of the aisle as a feature, not a bug. And with polarization ever more entrenched—when such moves run little risk of offending anyone other than people who would never vote for you anyway—it seems likely that this behavior will become increasingly normalized, whatever the fate of DeSantis’s election bid.

    Successfully removing a Democratic DA without voter input is a Florida phenomenon, but that does not mean other state Republican leadership don’t try. The Pennsylvania GOP has not been shy in its attempts to impeach Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, ostensibly on public safety grounds. And this year, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed a bill that will make firing DAs for using their discretion all too easy.

    It would seem futile at this point to appeal to bipartisanship and civility, seeking to resurrect the fantasy of West Wing-style tense debates and occasional intrigue, broken up by periodic displays of mutual respect and handshakes. As other political commentators have reflected, the “Never Trump” conservative movement has repeatedly failed to take off among the wider right-leaning public. Republicans in office as well as Republicans at the voting box are craving raw power at the expense of democratic principles.

    Meeting the reality of this moment may entail acceptance that while local offices such as DAs can matter in blue states—where reformists are also heavily targeted, but can sometimes survive—it is governors and legislative majorities that matter in red states.

    In states like Florida—which was, not so long ago but in a different era, considered purple—it may be time to pause on pouring resources into DA elections, and focus instead on longer-term efforts to rebalance the political terrain.

    It may make most sense for those seeking reform through prosecutors’ offices to focus exclusively on battles they might still win—in places like Illinois, California and Maryland, and not in Texas, Louisiana or South Carolina. In red states, for now, the fights might need to be left to intrepid attorney-activists in courtrooms, where legal principles sometimes still matter despite the personal politics of judges.



    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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