Ousted Florida state attorney takes his case to court in opposing DeSantis’ action

Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP

Lawyers will square off this week in a Tallahassee courtroom for a politically charged trial that’s expected to center on one question:

What was Gov. Ron DeSantis’ motive for yanking Andrew Warren from office?

In a surprise move in August that made national headlines, Warren, Hillsborough County’s twice-elected state attorney, was suspended from his duties and escorted out of his office by a sheriff’s deputy. It happened as DeSantis held a rally-style news conference at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office at which he and others lamented aspects of Warren’s progressive approach to criminal justice.

Warren is asking a federal judge to reinstate him. He says the suspension was political retaliation against his right to free speech. DeSantis says he did it because Warren refused to enforce state laws.

Who will testify?

Warren’s lawyers in recent weeks have deposed nine witnesses. They include several members of the governor’s staff, among them his former press secretary Christina Pushaw, who famously tweeted the night before the suspension to prepare for the “liberal media meltdown of the year.”

Also listed is Larry Keefe, the governor’s public safety czar, who handled the investigation for DeSantis and was instrumental in preparing for the suspension. Susan Lopez, the county judge whom DeSantis appointed to replace Warren, is also on the witness list.

The governor’s lawyers deposed five people. They include two Hillsborough prosecutors who may offer insight into Warren’s policy against prosecuting certain minor offenses — one of the reasons the governor cited in accusing Warren of neglecting his duties.

The actual written policy indicates individual prosecutors should use their discretion in deciding whether to pursue such crimes. Warren contends the policies were not a blanket refusal to enforce laws.

Warren is expected to testify at the trial.

Who won’t testify?

The governor has resisted the prospect of being called to the witness stand. Warren’s lawyers have agreed not to call him in their case in chief, but it’s still possible they might try to call him in a rebuttal portion of the case. U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle may have to decide if the governor takes the witness stand.

One witness who won’t appear live on the witness stand: Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister. Lawyers for the sheriff last week asked that he be excused from having to testify, citing his full schedule, the long distance between his home and the Tallahassee courthouse and his status as a leader of a large government agency.

Warren’s lawyers agreed not to call the sheriff. But given his involvement in Warren’s removal — he worked with the governor’s office and stood by DeSantis’ side for the announcement that Warren was out — what he had to say in a lengthy deposition earlier this month will be presented as evidence in court.

That deposition gave a glimpse into how things unfolded between Tampa and Tallahassee.

The sheriff said he had lunch one day last spring with Preston Farrior, a friend who works for the Ferman car enterprise, at Casa Santo Stefano in Ybor City, a Sicilian restaurant popular with politicians and the city’s powerful.

At the end of their lunch, Farrior asked Chronister if he would “jump on a quick call” with Keefe, whom the sheriff said he did not know.

They went out to Farrior’s car and made the call. The sheriff said Keefe asked “if we had any type of difficulties with our state attorney prosecuting cases.” Chronister told Keefe he was already compiling cases he thought Warren should have pursued and agreed to send them to Keefe.

Also shipped to the governor’s office was Warren’s office memo discussing how in general, homeless people sleeping in a business parking lot shouldn’t be charged with trespassing because it’s “not going to solve the underlying problem.”

Chronister opined that such cases could create a liability for his office if they went unprosecuted.

What’s in the evidence?

Among a deluge of exhibits to hit the court file: a memo that the governor’s staff prepared before Warren’s suspension, noting that Warren was described in a news story as something close to a “social justice warrior.” It mentioned his refusal to prosecute 67 protesters who were arrested on unlawful assembly charges during protests over the murder of George Floyd.

The memo seemed to express particular concern over Warren’s stance on abortion, and his having signed a pledge with other elected prosecutors to refrain from prosecuting abortion-related cases. (Warren signed a similar pledge against prosecuting transgender healthcare cases.) The memo included a legal analysis of how the governor could justify suspending him.

A chart listed a range of options the governor could take. They included:

Suspending Warren and asking the Florida Senate to permanently remove him from office;

Suspending him temporarily until the Florida Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the state’s 15-week abortion ban or until Warren agreed to enforce the law;

Issuing a statement about the state’s dedication to enforcing abortion laws;

Taking no action until the Florida Supreme Court rules on the state’s 15-week abortion ban;

Taking no action.

Each option included pros and cons. One benefit of suspension: “A leftist prosecutor would be removed from office.” One drawback: “Political battle is likely to increase Warren’s profile.”

A benefit of no action: “The governor avoids political liability” and “No additional media coverage for Warren.” One drawback: “Warren remains unchallenged while openly defying Florida law.”

Other court exhibits that could also be evidence include text messages and emails exchanged between the governor’s staff in the days leading up to the suspension.

The trial is expected to last three to four days. Cameras will not be allowed in the courtroom.

However the judge ultimately rules, it’s anticipated that the losing side will appeal.