Andrew Warren is running for State Attorney in Hillsborough

Hillsborough County's suspended State Attorney Andrew Warren
Andrew Warren on WMNF. Zoom screen capture, 20 Sept. 2022.

By Dara Kam 16 hrs ago ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Amid a high-profile legal battle about his suspension by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Democrat Andrew Warren on Tuesday announced he will run again this year for Hillsborough County state attorney.

Warren was elected state attorney twice before being suspended in August 2022 by DeSantis, who accused Warren of “incompetence and willful defiance of his duties.” Warren challenged the suspension in state and federal courts, with one case pending at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Warren “intends to be back on the ballot so voters can emphatically make it clear that they decide who represents them — not a governor who broke the law and abused his power for a political stunt,” Warren’s campaign said in an announcement Tuesday.

“I’m running to protect our values, for a woman’s right to choose, for a fair and just system, and — above all — for freedom and democracy,” Warren said in a video accompanying the announcement. “I’m running to do what’s right. It’s what I’ve always done, as a former federal prosecutor, as a father, and as your state attorney. I’m Andrew Warren, and together, it’s time we reclaim the future of this community — our community. Join us in this fight.”

DeSantis frequently touted his suspension of Warren while campaigning for president, before dropping out after losing the Iowa Republican caucus in January. The governor pointed to the suspension as part of a “tough-on-crime” approach to politics.

Warren filed a federal lawsuit challenging his suspension, arguing it violated his First Amendment rights. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in January 2023 found that the First Amendment protected Warren on two factors — his political affiliations and advocacy for criminal justice reform. But the judge concluded that DeSantis would have suspended Warren based on other factors that were not protected by the First Amendment and that he lacked the authority to reinstate the prosecutor.

The Florida Supreme Court in January also rejected Warren’s attempt to be reinstated, and Warren announced he would not run in the November election.

But days later, a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Hinkle to reconsider Warren’s lawsuit and vacated the district judge’s decision. DeSantis has asked the full appellate court to take up the case.

Warren, who was first elected as state attorney in the 13th Judicial Circuit in 2016 and re-elected in 2020, has contended that DeSantis targeted the “reform prosecutor” to score political points in the runup to the failed presidential bid.

“On August 4, 2022, Ron DeSantis threw out your vote. He illegally forced me from office under armed guard,” Warren said in Tuesday’s video. “My late son. My beautiful daughters. My strong wife. They inspire me to serve others — to do good. That’s why I took DeSantis to court.”

Warren said he is “running for election as state attorney to serve the people — all the people — of Hillsborough County. I’m running to keep our neighborhoods safe. I’m running to fight for victims and to make our criminal justice system better.”

The video also pointed to Hinkle’s January 2023 ruling, which found that Warren “was diligently and competently performing the job he was elected to perform.”

A year later, the appellate panel also appeared to vindicate Warren.

“The First Amendment prevents DeSantis from identifying a reform prosecutor and then suspending him to garner political benefit,” the panel’s 48-page main opinion, written by Judge Jill Pryor and joined by Judge Anne Conway, said. “On remand, DeSantis must prove that unprotected activity, such as Warren’s actual performance or his policies, motivated him to suspend Warren.”

Judge Kevin Newsom wrote a concurring opinion that quoted DeSantis referring to the suspension during a presidential debate. He said a statement that Warren signed about abortion laws — one of the issues DeSantis cited in suspending Warren — was protected speech.

“Bottom line: The Supreme Court has made clear — for reasons that cut to the core of our representative democracy — that the First Amendment safeguards elected officials’ right to express their views on salient political issues,” Newsom wrote. “Whatever one thinks of Warren’s particular views about abortion, he is no less entitled to that protection.”

Warren’s announcement Tuesday came less than a week before the start of a qualifying period for candidates for state attorney. That period will start on Monday and end on April 26.

State Attorney Suzy Lopez, a Republican who was appointed by DeSantis to replace Warren, is running for the post and had raised $288,265 for her campaign as of March 31, according to a finance report. Democrat Elizabeth Martinez Strauss in February also announced her candidacy.

Tuesday’s announcement highlighted what Warren listed as accomplishments during his tenure as Hillsborough County’s top prosecutor. As an example, Warren said he reduced crime by 30 percent and made Hillsborough “the safest large county in Florida, according to state statistics.”

Warren also hailed his creation and expansion of civil citation programs aimed at “disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline,” the establishment of a community council and a “Racial Justice Work Group,” and targeting of child predators.

DeSantis’ suspension order, in part, pointed to Warren signing a national organization’s statement about avoiding enforcement of laws preventing abortions.

Abortion will be one of the most controversial topics of this year’s elections. The Florida Supreme Court this month paved the way for a law restricting abortions after six weeks of pregnancy to go into effect May 1. Justices also decided that a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at ensuring abortion rights can go before voters in November.

Appearing on the News Service of Florida’s “Deeper Dive with Dara Kam” podcast shortly after Hinkle’s ruling last year, Warren acknowledged that he and other prosecutors and law-enforcement officials around the country had signed onto statements “basically speaking out on issues of public importance” affecting the criminal justice system, such as abortion, LGBTQ rights and the death penalty.

“Not only do we have a right to speak out on, but we shouldn’t want our elected officials to speak out? I mean, isn’t that what transparency is all about? Do you want elected officials to hide their views on things, especially as a prosecutor? As the judge said, not only was it illegal to be suspended for doing these things, but this is what a prosecutor should be doing. I did exactly what I told people to do when they elected me twice in Hillsborough County. I stood up for things that I believed in and I was transparent about it,” he said.

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