By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Suspended Orlando-area State Attorney Monique Worrell on Wednesday asked the Florida Supreme Court to overturn Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision last month to oust her, saying he had no legal basis for the move.
“To the extent the governor disagrees with how Ms. Worrell is lawfully exercising her prosecutorial discretion, such a disagreement does not constitute a basis for suspension from elected office,” Worrell’s lawyers wrote in a 46-page petition seeking to restore her to the job. “Ms. Worrell was elected to serve as state attorney, not the governor. Mere disagreement between a governor and a state attorney about where within the lawful range of discretion that discretion should be exercised falls far short of the constitutionally required showing of neglect of duty or incompetence.”
Worrell, who was elected in 2020 as state attorney in the 9th Judicial Circuit in Orange and Osceola counties, disputed a series of arguments raised in DeSantis’ Aug. 9 executive order suspending her. 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.”
Wednesday’s petition said the order “fails to allege any facts relating to Ms. Worrell’s own conduct (either acts or omissions) that would constitute neglect of duty or incompetence.”
“(Unable) even to identify any ‘practices or policies’ of Ms. Worrell, the executive order instead attempts to infer that she has adopted practices or policies that result in reduced incarceration rates by comparing incarceration rate data from the Ninth Judicial Circuit to that of other Florida judicial circuits,” the petition said. “Such data, even if accurate, reflects a host of factors unrelated to the practices or policies of the state attorney and thus cannot be relied on to demonstrate that Ms. Worrell has practices or policies that result in lower incarceration rates. Moreover, because there is no duty for a state attorney to maximize incarceration rates, lower than average incarceration rates are no evidence of neglect of duty or incompetence.”
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.
Worrell’s suspension came a little more than a year after DeSantis suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren in a highly controversial move. Worrell and Warren are Democrats, while the governor is a Republican.
Warren 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.
Worrell’s suspension came after she drew criticism from police union leaders who said her office should have done more to keep behind bars a man accused of shooting two Orlando police officers.
“We had a duty to act to protect the public from this dereliction of duty,” DeSantis said in announcing the suspension.
The 15-page executive 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.
But the petition filed Tuesday disputed the bases for such arguments. It asked the Supreme Court to rule that DeSantis had exceeded his constitutional authority and said Worrell should be reinstated with back pay.
“The suspension power is not a limitless ‘take my word for it’ license for the governor to suspend anyone with whom the governor has a policy dispute,” the petition said. “In addition to Ms. Worrell’s constitutional right to adequate notice to mount a defense and the Senate’s need for adequate factual allegations to determine whether to remove or reinstate her, the voters and other elected state officials also are entitled to a more detailed recitation of Ms. Worrell’s supposed neglect or incompetence. Indeed, the governor owes the voters in the Ninth Judicial Circuit a clearly reasoned, facially valid order of suspension so they can understand precisely what alleged conduct purportedly justified Ms. Worrell’s suspension from office, especially where the order appears to find fault with the very platform on which Ms. Worrell was elected.”