By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis late Tuesday urged the Florida Supreme Court to reject a challenge to his suspension of Orlando-area State Attorney Monique Worrell, saying the case “presents a political question.”
“(Part of the Florida Constitution) authorizes the governor to suspend an official for enumerated grounds and grants the Senate alone the power to remove (from office),” attorneys for DeSantis wrote in a 63-page response to a court petition filed in September by Worrell. “The Senate thus is invested with the sole discretion to decide whether the governor’s suspension order adequately stated grounds for suspension, just as the Constitution entrusts to that body the sole power to try impeachments. This (Supreme) Court should now make clear what it has often implied: the validity of a suspension and removal is a non-justiciable political question.”
The response also said DeSantis had grounds to suspend Worrell, alleging that her office “adopted practices and policies resulting in undercharging, excessively slow case times, and the evasion of certain sentence enhancements required by the Legislature.”
DeSantis on Aug. 9 issued an executive order suspending Worrell, a Democrat who was elected in 2020 in the 9th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Orange and Osceola counties. Among other things, the order alleged that Worrell’s policies prevented or discouraged assistant state attorneys from seeking minimum mandatory sentences for gun crimes and drug trafficking offenses.
But Worrell filed the petition at the Supreme Court in an attempt to get her job back and argued that DeSantis did not have a legal basis for the suspension.
“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 the 46-page petition. “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.”
The petition disputed allegations in DeSantis’ executive order.
“(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.”
Worrell’s suspension and the resulting legal fight came after DeSantis last year suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren in a highly controversial move.
Warren, a Democrat, challenged his suspension at the 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.
While the Senate has ultimate authority to decide whether to remove officials from office, it 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.
In the response filed Tuesday, lawyers for DeSantis pushed back against Worrell’s arguments about prosecutorial discretion,
“Ms. Worrell does not have ‘discretion’ to abuse her power to bring criminal charges by chronic underenforcement of Florida law,” the response said.
The Supreme Court is scheduled Dec. 6 to hear arguments in the case.