FLORIDA — On Tuesday, suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren filed an appeal to a higher federal court over his removal from office by Governor Ron DeSantis. But why is Warren continuing to bring his legal battle to federal courts when Florida’s Constitution gives the Florida Senate the exclusive responsibility to judge the merits of an executive suspension?
Warren, a Democrat, has vowed to fight DeSantis’ effort to remove him from office, but it does require approval from the Republican-majority Senate. Warren has called the suspension by DeSantis a “political stunt” and “illegal overreach” to “further his own political ambition.”
WHY FEDERAL COURT?
After the governor suspended him, Warren could either resign from his post or request a trial in the Florida Senate – a process spelled out in the state constitution giving the Senate authority to remove a suspended official from office or reinstate them.
When Warren brought his case to federal court, Judge Robert Hinkle said the case had merit under the First Amendment. But at the end of the trial, Hinkle noted in his order that due to jurisdiction, a federal judge did not have the authority to reinstate Warren.
Immediately after Hinkle issued his order, Warren sent a letter to DeSantis demanding his job back, citing the judge’s opinion and noting that the judge’s order “emphatically stated” he had performed his duties “without a hint of misconduct” and that his suspension had violated state law.
“ORDER” VS. “SUGGESTION”
But Bryan Griffin, the governor’s press secretary, told The Florida Standard: “Andrew Warren, of all people, should understand the distinction between legal dicta and the holding of a court’s decision.
“Dicta” in law refers to a comment, suggestion, or observation made by a judge in an opinion that is not legally binding. Hinkle's “order” acknowledged that the federal court did not hold jurisdiction over whether Warren should get his job back.
“In its lengthy opinion, the Court attempted to usurp the Florida Senate’s constitutional authority to make a determination on Mr. Warren’s neglect of duty and incompetence. It is the Florida Senate that is to rightly serve as the ultimate factfinder in this case,” Griffin told The Florida Standard.
THE SENATE PROCESS
Last August, shortly after Warren was suspended, then-Senate President Wilton Simpson began the process of a Senate trial that would consider the fate of Andrew Warren. In a memo, Simpson wrote that the “first step in addressing a suspension is to inform the suspended official of the Senate’s receipt of the governor's suspension action and to inquire whether it is the intention of the suspended official to resign from office or request a hearing.”
But Simpson later put the Senate hearing on hold when the federal court in the Northern District of Florida accepted Warren’s case. On January 20, 2023, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo issued a memo with an update on the Executive Order suspending Warren.
“This morning, Judge Hinkle of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District dismissed the legal challenge initiated by Mr. Andrew Warren, challenging the Governor’s Executive Order of Suspension,” Passidomo wrote.
The memo states that “the Senate process regarding the executive suspension shall be held in abeyance and the matter shall not be considered by the Senate until final determination of a court challenge and the exhaustion of all appellate remedies.”
The Florida Standard reached out to Passidomo’s office for details on when the Senate might take up the matter again but did not receive an immediate response. Despite Warren’s appeal to the appellate court, why would the Senate wait to address the issue if the federal court does not have jurisdiction over the outcome of the suspension?
Florida’s Senate Rule 12 outlines the process adopted by the Senate for determining if an executive suspension has merit.
SENATE ACTION IN 2019
After DeSantis took office in 2019, he suspended then-Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, arguing that Israel demonstrated a pattern of poor leadership. According to the governor, he failed to protect Floridians and visitors during the tragic Fort Lauderdale International Airport shooting in 2017.
The Executive Order also stated that he failed to protect teachers and students during the 2018 mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – a tragedy where 17 people were killed.
The case went to the Florida Senate, and former lawmaker Dudley Goodlette was appointed as special master. Goodlette said that DeSantis’ legal team did not provide enough evidence to support the suspension, but the Senate still voted to remove Israel from office.