Andrew Warren vs. Gov. DeSantis: Legal battle over suspension will head to trial, federal judge says

Instead of issuing a ruling in suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren's case against Gov. Ron DeSantis, a federal judge is requesting a trial over the matter. It could take place in the coming months. 

Monday, Warren asked the judge to reinstate him as the top prosecutor in Hillsborough County. Within a couple of hours, the hearing was over. According to FOX 13's court reporter Gloria Gomez, when the judge asked both sides when it would be best to set the trial, the attorneys asked for a break before answering.

When they returned to the courtroom, Warren's attorneys responded with one month from now. But the governor's lawyers said they could be ready in three months.

"There is so much more at stake than my job. This is about making sure our elections have meaning. Making sure that no one, not even the governor, can overturn an election," Warren said after the hearing concluded. "As the judge said, the governor [has] an opportunity to come in here and to justify what he did. We’re thankful for the opportunity that the court gave us today, and we look forward to the trial where we can win this case, and put me back in the office to continue doing the work that I was elected twice to do."

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Before a trial date is set, the judge is expected to issue a preliminary ruling on whether to reinstate Warren. It does not mean he will return to work in the state attorney's office immediately. It's just to let both sides know where the judge stands before hearing all the evidence.

When the trial does occur, it will not be in front of a jury. The judge will make a final ruling.

On Aug. 4, Gov. Ron DeSantis made the announcement he'd be suspending Warren from his role as Hillsborough County State Attorney. DeSantis cited Warren's pledge to not enforce the state's 15-week abortion ban and his vow to not criminalize minors seeking a sex change operation, which is not state law. Meanwhile, Warren said the Florida governor violated his right to free speech when he removed him from the position.

"Today I went into court as a plaintiff, fighting for democracy itself," Warren said. "We look forward to the trial on the merits."

Warren's lawyer, Jean-Jacques Cabou, said the judge pointed out that his client is not an employee of Governor DeSantis.

"He was clear on that," Cabou described. "He said it several times."

Warren said, as an elected official, he believes the governor's decision was an overreach of power. He sued the governor, accusing him of abusing his authority and violating his free speech.

"The governor suspended me for talking about things, for voicing my opposition to two of his favorite culture war issues," Warren said.

DeSantis, however, has maintained Warren was guilty of a dereliction of duty.

"We are going to make sure that our laws are enforced and that no individual prosecutor puts himself above the law," DeSantis said the day he made the announcement.

Following his suspension, DeSantis appointed Suzy Lopez as acting state attorney to fill the position. The governor had also accused Warren of having policies of presumptive non-enforcement of certain laws. 

When Lopez stepped into the job, she sent out two documents to her team saying certain policies Warren had in place are gone. One pertained to Tampa Police Department's bicycle-stop policy, which federal investigators determined unfairly targeted minorities. Warren has said the policy was carefully crafted following meetings with law enforcement, civil rights leaders, and community members.

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Lopez also provided FOX 13 with a document showing Warren had a policy of presumptive non-prosecution for a list of lower-level offenses, which mostly involved traffic offenses. That policy, however, allowed prosecutors to use their discretion and file charges if there were public safety concerns.

"That's not only the way a prosecutor should do their job. It's the way a prosecutor is required to do their jobs," said Warren.

Experts said the case could have major implications for the Florida legal system. 

"I think it's going to set a precedent from here on out as to how much power does the governor have to be able to do this," said Jeff Brown, a legal expert and former prosecutor for Pinellas and Pasco counties. "I think what really got Andrew Warren into all this problem was you're announcing a policy decision and saying what you won't do before any of those factual cases are before you and I think that's also one of the issues that are going here...and I think the governor is justified on [his criticism of] that."

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Brown told FOX 13 it's hard to predict how this case will play out.

"I can see the merits pretty much on both sides," said Brown. "I think one of the issues is what kind of role or authority does the governor have to be able to remove a state attorney? We've never really had that issue. The governor's position is that [Warren] is an employee to some extent, that he's a county official and [DeSantis] has the right to remove somebody for negligence or for incompetence. But Andrew Warren is arguing he's an elected official, that he's responsible to the voters. So that's a little different take on it."