Lawmakers and ex-justices back suspended Central Florida prosecutor Monique Worrell

Monique Worrell
Monique Worrell (2021). From her Facebook page as State Attorney in Orange-Osceola.

By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Current and former Democratic lawmakers and former Florida Supreme Court justices have signed onto legal briefs backing suspended Orlando-area State Attorney Monique Worrell’s bid to get her job back.

Two friend-of-the-court briefs, filed Monday, urge the state Supreme Court to find that Gov. Ron DeSantis exceeded his authority in suspending Worrell and to order her reinstatement.

One of the briefs was filed by 121 current and former officials from across the country, including former Florida Justices Harry Lee Anstead, Rosemary Barkett, Barbara Pariente, James E.C. Perry and Peggy Quince.

“Sanctioning the undemocratic suspension of a duly elected prosecutor here creates the potential for future unfettered removal of local leaders based simply on the political and partisan whim of a state leader,” that brief said. “Governor DeSantis’s (suspension) order is not simply lawfully and constitutionally deficient but also, if allowed to stand, endangers and destabilizes the administration of justice in Florida and creates potential adverse ripple effects in other parts of the country.”

The other brief was filed by current and former Florida elected officials, including 10 current Democratic state House members and four former members. The current members are Rep. Kristen Arrington of Kissimmee; Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis of Ocoee; Rep. Lindsay Cross of St. Petersburg; Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando; Rep. Ashley Gantt of Miami; Rep. Rita Harris of Orlando; Rep. Johanna Lopez of Orlando; Rep. Angie Nixon of Jacksonville; Rep. Michele Rayner of St. Petersburg; and Rep. Felicia Robinson of Miami Gardens.

“We believe that it is essential that the governor’s suspension power be used sparingly and only in cases involving substantial misconduct by an official,” the Florida officials’ brief said. “Left unchecked, a governor’s abuse of this power interferes with state officials’ performance of duties. For those not aligned as a matter of politics or policy with the governor, the fear of suspension would make them hesitant to take certain positions, even if they are in the best interest of their constituents.”

The briefs came after Worrell on Sept. 6 filed a petition at the Supreme Court challenging her suspension as state attorney in the 9th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Orange and Osceola counties.

DeSantis on Aug. 9 issued an executive order suspending Worrell, a Democrat who was elected in 2020. Among other things, the order said Worrell “authorized or allowed practices or policies that have systematically permitted violent offenders, drug traffickers, serious-juvenile offenders, and pedophiles to evade incarceration, when otherwise warranted under Florida law.”

The 15-page order alleged, in part, that Worrell’s policies prevented or discouraged assistant state attorneys from seeking minimum mandatory sentences for gun crimes and drug trafficking offenses.

Worrell’s practices and policies constitute “abuse of prosecutorial discretion” and reflect “a systemic failure to enforce incarcerative penalties called for by Florida law,” the order said.

The Florida Constitution gives the governor the authority to suspend elected officials. The ultimate decision about removal from office rests with the Florida Senate.

The Senate last month advised a lawyer for Worrell that it would put proceedings in “abeyance” if she challenged the suspension in court. DeSantis appointed Andrew Bain, who recently served as an Orange County judge, to replace Worrell as state attorney.

But Worrell’s petition and the briefs filed Monday argued that DeSantis did not have a legal basis for the suspension and said he was targeting policy choices. They also warned about potential far-reaching implications of the ouster.

“The order, if left intact, would create the risk that any state attorney can be suspended whenever a governor disagrees with their — and, necessarily, the voters’ — policy priorities,” said the brief filed by the 121 officials from across the country. “The order will thus have a chilling effect on the exercise of independent lawful discretion by all state attorneys and also strip communities of their voting rights and prerogative to select prosecutorial leaders who make judgment calls and exercise discretion in a manner they support.”

Worrell’s suspension came a little more than a year after DeSantis suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren in a highly controversial move.

Warren, a Democrat, challenged his suspension at the Florida Supreme Court, but justices ruled in June that he waited too long to bring the case. Warren also is fighting the suspension in federal court, with the issue pending at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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