A federal appeals court on Tuesday heard arguments over whether Florida prosecutor, Andrew Warren, who was suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis, should get his job back. It is the most high-profile example of the growing confrontations between state officials and local prosecutors who decline to enforce certain laws.
Dozens of liberal local prosecutors have promised not to enforce bans on abortion or some low-level drug offenses, which they say are harmful to their communities and a poor use of limited resources.
Some governors and legislatures have said these decisions are lawless and have moved to give statewide officials more power to remove local prosecutors or take over certain prosecutions, reports the Wall Street Journal.
Prosecutors have long been able to exercise discretion to focus their resources on pursuing the worst crimes and to ignore arcane laws. Sate officials have longstanding authority to step in if a prosecutor isn’t fulfilling their role or is bungling a key case. Law professors say these conflicts have grown acute with a recent wave of elected prosecutors who have been vocal on hot-button issues that include abortion and policing.
“As criminal justice politics have gotten more conflicted there are incentives for prosecutors to be more overt about not enforcing laws,” said law Prof. Zachary Price of the University of California San Francisco.
One catalyst for recent clashes was a statement organized by Fair and Just Prosecution, a nonprofit network of liberal prosecutors. The statement after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June was signed by more than 80 prosecutors who said they wouldn’t focus their offices’ resources on enforcing abortion bans.
“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 prosecutors said.
Andrew Warren, the Democratic elected prosecutor in Hillsborough County, Fla., was one of the signatories. In August, DeSantis announced Warren’s suspension. He was escorted from his office by an armed law enforcement officer. DeSantis appointed a state judge, Susan Lopez, to step in as a replacement. A U.S. district judge ruled that the firing violated the First Amendment because Warren was removed for his political views and that DeSantis failed to show Warren had neglected his duties. Judge Robert Hinkle said he didn’t have the power to order Warren reinstated.
Warren appealed to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments Tuesday afternoon.
Similar conflicts are playing out elsewhere. Lawmakers in Georgia created a state-appointed oversight board that has the power to discipline and remove elected prosecutors.
Missouri lawmakers are advancing a bill that would allow the governor to appoint a special prosecutor in any jurisdiction where the homicide rate exceeds 35 cases per every 100,000 people. That is the case in St. Louis, where the state’s Republican attorney general earlier this year initiated court proceedings to remove the elected circuit attorney, a Democrat, on allegations she and her office have repeatedly neglected their duties.