Judge ponders the fate of suspended Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren after trial ends

Andrew Warren suspended by Ron DeSantis
Gov. Ron DeSantis(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara). 2022.

By Jim Turner ©2022 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A three-day trial over Gov. Ron DeSantis’ suspension of a twice-elected Hillsborough County state attorney wrapped on Thursday, but a federal judge presiding over the lawsuit said it could be weeks before he releases a decision.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said he may not have time before Dec. 19 to fully delve into Andrew Warren’s allegations that the governor’s action violated his First Amendment speech rights.

Warren, who was first elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2020, told reporters outside a federal courthouse in Tallahassee that he looked forward to Hinkle’s decision.

“A trial is a search for the truth. And over the past three days, everyone had the opportunity to hear the truth,” said Warren, who testified on Tuesday.

DeSantis’ legal counsel declined to comment after the trial.

The governor drew national attention on Aug. 4 when he suspended Warren, a Democrat, for “incompetence and willful defiance of his duties.”

Warren’s team has maintained the governor’s action was politically motivated.

During closing arguments on Thursday, attorney David O’Neil, who represents Warren, told Hinkle that DeSantis’ suspension of Warren effectively was “an opportunity to kill three policy birds with one stone” by silencing a voice of opposition on the issues of abortion and medical treatment for transgender people and by displaying a tough-on-crime attitude.

DeSantis suspended Warren in an executive order that, in part, pointed to a letter Warren signed pledging to avoid enforcing a new law preventing abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Also, the governor targeted a statement Warren joined condemning the criminalization of transgender people and gender-affirming care.

George Levesque, an attorney who represents DeSantis, said Warren’s actions were in the role of a “policy maker” and shouldn’t be considered a First Amendment violation.

But Hinkle noted that Warren was an elected official and expressed a need for politicians and candidates to be able to “express their views.”

Larry Keefe, an adviser to DeSantis known as the state’s “public safety czar” who testified on Tuesday and Wednesday, was a key figure in this week’s trial.

According to Keefe, DeSantis in December asked him if any state attorneys in Florida weren’t following the law. Keefe, a former U.S. attorney appointed by then-President Donald Trump, said he started an “ad hoc” inquiry into the issue by querying law-enforcement officials around the state.

“By the end of January or February, all roads were consistently leading to Mr. Warren,” he said.

Warren “was regarded as a state attorney whose approach to his job was harmful,” who was “hostile and antagonistic toward law enforcement” and who was “negatively impacting law enforcement and their ability to protect people,” Keefe said.

But Hinkle on Wednesday pressed Keefe on whether he only sought input from Republican law enforcement officials and individuals involved in GOP politics.

As a prosecutor, Hinkle asked, “You would never do an investigation talking to just people on one side of the case.”

“That’s true,” said Keefe, who repeatedly called his probe a “look into” the issue that was not an “investigation.”

On Thursday, Hinkle wondered if Keefe’s actions could be viewed as a “one-sided inquiry” focused on law enforcement officials’ dissatisfaction with the criminal-justice reform advocate’s policies rather than on how Warren operated his office.

Hinkle also pointed out that an early draft of DeSantis’ executive order included a reference to progressive billionaire and political donor George Soros, as well as the Democratic Party.

DeSantis also referenced Soros-backed prosecutors during an appearance on FOX News the night of Warren’s suspension, the judge observed.

But Hinkle, who often interrupted Levesque during his closing remarks on Thursday, advised the attorneys not to read too much into his line of questioning.

“I don’t know who is going to win,” the judge said.

During opening arguments on Tuesday, attorney Jean-Jacques Cabou, who represents Warren, told Hinkle that DeSantis suspended the prosecutor “because of what he said and what he believes and because they’re different from what the governor believes.”

But Levesque on Tuesday argued that the Republican governor suspended Warren “because he was refusing to enforce the law.”

Warren’s stance against the 15-week abortion restriction was “tantamount to a veto of state law,” Levesque argued.

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