TAMPA, Fla. - After Gov. Ron DeSantis' explosive announcement to remove the Hillsborough County state attorney, Andrew Warren, a local judge was tapped to replace him during his suspension and the Republican-controlled Florida Senate must decide whether to reinstate Warren.
Ahead of Thursday's press conference in Tampa, there appeared to be little warning to Warren himself about his looming suspension, considering he had previously scheduled his own appearance for later that day to announce two cold case arrests.
DeSantis, with the support of three Bay Area sheriffs and the previous Tampa police chief, said Warren put himself above the law on issues like abortion and gender surgeries for transgender youth.
Friday, the acting state attorney heads to the courthouse in her new role. DeSantis appointed Hillsborough County Judge Susan Lopez to serve during Warren's suspension.
According to state law, the Senate must submit a notice for an initial hearing on Warren's suspension within 90 days. The deadline for the initial hearing is just days before Election Day in November.
The final decision on whether to reinstate or remove him must be made before the end of the next legislative session, which is scheduled to start in March and wrap up in May.
Warren could also take his case to court and challenge his suspension, which could delay the Florida Senate timeline. He insisted Thursday that he is still the duly elected state attorney and he intends to appeal the suspension.
Why was Andrew Warren suspended?
DeSantis said this was a result of a review of all state attorney offices in Florida, adding that he didn't speak to Warren to discuss the findings before issuing the suspension. DeSantis said he made his decision a few days ago.
"It all came back to this area, here in the 13th Judicial Circuit in Hillsborough County. The response that we got was a lot of frustration on the part of law enforcement for criminals being let go and crimes not being prosecuted. We compiled a lot of records, I can tell you it's been a troubling record," DeSantis explained. "This was a statewide review to make sure we were not going down the road of San Francisco."
Chesa Boudin was ousted as a San Francisco district attorney in a June 7 recall election fueled by frustration over public safety. Viral video footage of people shoplifting and attacking seniors, particularly Asian Americans, rattled residents. A new district attorney has since been sworn in, Brooke Jenkins, who quit Boudin's office in 2021 to volunteer for the recall, reports FOX News.
"There aren't Republican and Democratic victims, just victims," Hillsborough Sheriff Chronister said. "I continue to work with my law enforcement counterparts who privately are frustrated with the state attorney, who seems intently focused on empathy for criminals and less interested in pursuing justice for crime victims."
The Florida governor said Warren's suspension stems from three main issues:
- Warren's promise not to prosecute women or providers who violate the state's 15-week abortion ban.
- His promise not to prosecute those who provide gender re-assignment surgery for minors
- His general policy of not prosecuting minor or low-level first-time offenses for certain violations
Warren, who was first elected as state attorney for Florida’s 13th Judicial Circuit in 2016, recently signed a joint letter promising to avoid prosecuting people for providing or seeking abortions. The letter was published in June by the organization Fair and Just Prosecution, which bills itself as bringing together elected local prosecutors to promote "a justice system grounded in fairness, equity, compassion, and fiscal responsibility."
Warren signed the letter along with more than 90 prosecutors from various states, some of which have enacted limitations on abortion similar to the Florida measure. The Florida Legislature passed the 15-week abortion restriction this spring, and DeSantis signed it in April. Providers could face third-degree felony charges for breaking the law.
"Not all of us agree on a personal or moral level on the issue of abortion. But we stand together in our firm belief that prosecutors have a responsibility to refrain from using limited criminal legal system resources to criminalize personal medical decisions," the June 24 letter said. "As such, we decline to use our offices’ resources to criminalize reproductive health decisions and commit to exercise our well-settled discretion and refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide, or support abortions."
DeSantis also targeted Warren for joining a separate letter "condemning the criminalization of transgender people and gender-affirming healthcare" that was published by the organization Fair and Just Prosecution a year ago. The letter also was signed by Monique Worrell, state attorney for Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit.
DeSantis’ administration recently ratcheted up pressure on medical providers who provide puberty-blocking medication and hormone therapy for transgender people. The State Board of Medicine is set to consider a proposal, backed by the Florida Department of Health, that would ban doctors from using the treatments for transgender youths.
Brian Dugan, former Tampa police chief, expressed his own frustration after the governor's announcement, providing the aftermath of the 2020 riots in East Tampa as an example. A few weeks after, Dugan said Warren gave a misleading press conference.
"He said there were no acts of violence, no property damage. He must’ve not read the police reports," Dugan said, adding there were photos of damage to police patrol vehicles. "Where I come from, you’re lying. I’m not elected. I was appointed. I’m here because I believe in keeping this community safe."
Dugan went on to say that Warren promised to expunge the 67 arrests made after the riots.
"He does not have the authority," Dugan explained. "How would you like to be one of those 67 people who have been arrested, and you think you’ve been expunged? Not a single arrest has been expunged. He has misled our community. "
Who is Susan Lopez?
DeSantis appointed Hillsborough County Judge Susan Lopez to serve as acting state attorney during Warren's suspension. Lopez grew up in Tampa. She graduated from Plant high school and went to law school in Boston. She was one of the top prosecutors in Hillsborough County for 17 years handling some of the biggest cases in the county.
Lopez was appointed by the governor to serve as a Hillsborough County judge in 2021. She previously served as the Assistant State Attorney in the 13th Judicial Circuit.
"I have the utmost respect for our state laws and I understand the important role that the State Attorney plays in ensuring the safety of our community and the enforcement of our laws," Lopez said in a statement. "I want to thank the Governor for placing his trust in me, and I promise that I will faithfully execute the duties of this office."
Under the state constitution, DeSantis has the authority to suspend state officials "for reasons of misfeasance, malfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony," according to the news release from the governor's office.
In 2020, 369,129 Hillsborough County voters cast their ballot for Warren, which made up 53.4% of the turnout. He was also elected by voters in 2016.
At a press conference held by the governor Thursday morning, Lopez said she is honored to take the position.
"When the governor calls you for a different service you answer," she said. "So, here I am."
The governor's power
The Florida Constitution allows the governor to remove an elected official from office for "malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence" and the inability to perform their official duties.
This can be found under Article IV, Section 7:
Suspensions; filling office during suspensions.—
(a) By executive order stating the grounds and filed with the custodian of state records, the governor may suspend from office any state officer not subject to impeachment, any officer of the militia not in the active service of the United States, or any county officer, for malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony, and may fill the office by appointment for the period of suspension. The suspended officer may at any time before removal be reinstated by the governor.
(b) The senate may, in proceedings prescribed by law, remove from office or reinstate the suspended official and for such purpose the senate may be convened in special session by its president or by a majority of its membership.
(c) By order of the governor any elected municipal officer indicted for crime may be suspended from office until acquitted and the office filled by appointment for the period of suspension, not to extend beyond the term, unless these powers are vested elsewhere by law or the municipal charter.
During his term, DeSantis removed four individuals from their office:
- Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel following the deadly Parkland school shooting. In May, he was sworn in as the new police chief of Opa-locka in South Florida.
- Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher following a series of controversies during the 2018 election, such as missing the deadline to recount ballots in the U.S. Senate race.
- Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson of the Okaloosa County School District after an investigation into child abuse and failure to report child abuse in the district
- Port Richey Mayor Dale Massad after he was arrested and accused of firing at Pasco County deputies when they tried to serve a warrant at his home. State investigators were charging him with practicing medicine without a license following a four-month-long undercover investigation.
Andrew Warren responds to suspension
Warren, a Democrat, lashed out at the move, accusing the governor of overstepping his authority:
"Crime is down," he said. "We're protecting people's rights. We have fought so hard for public safety and fairness and justice. If the governor thinks he can do a better job, then he should run for state attorney, not president."
While the governor did have support for his decision, dozens of supporters were at the courthouse Thursday night rallying behind the now-suspended state attorney. Both gubernatorial candidates vying for the Democratic nomination spoke against the suspension.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried:
"This is a politically motivated attack on a universally respected State Attorney democratically elected to exercise prosecutorial discretion. Ron DeSantis is a pathetic bully. He’s doing this because he wants to be dictator, not a governor of Florida. That’s not how this works, though. This will backfire. We just saw it in Kansas. Florida is a pro-choice, pro-democracy state. If this stands, the people of Florida will put an end to it in November."
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist:
"The people of Hillsborough elected Andrew Warren not once, but twice, because of his commitment to safety and justice for all people. This action by Governor DeSantis is that of a wannabe dictator who puts partisan politics first. He doesn't give a damn about women or average Floridians. It’s a flagrant abuse of power.
"If Governor DeSantis was truly worried about the people of Florida, he would focus on the affordability crisis that’s crushing our state and squeezing working families."
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report