TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A trial date has been set for the legal faceoff between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the 13th Judicial Circuit’s suspended State Attorney, Andrew Warren. The state attorney filed suit, challenging the suspension in August.
A federal judge has set Nov. 29 for the trial, beginning the process of weighing Warren’s claims of unconstitutional overreach by the governor against DeSantis’ argument that Warren had failed to fulfill his duties as state attorney.
The new filings in U.S. District Court follow a denial of Warren’s request for reinstatement.
At the center of the legal argument, according to Warren’s court filing, is the First Amendment. Warren claims DeSantis overstepped his authority by suspending the state attorney for having different political views and how he used his legal discretion in office.
The governor, however, filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming instead that the First Amendment fails to pass muster for a “claim on which relief can be granted.” Warren, twice elected to office as state attorney, is suing to retain his position. While suspended, a DeSantis appointee has taken office.
In new court filings, submitted Sept. 29, a U.S. District Judge says that as an elected official, not a member of the general public, as well as not being a “rank-and-file employee” of the Florida government, Warren’s First Amendment rights may be somewhat limited compared to a private citizen, citing a previous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Bond v. Floyd. However, the judge noted that, at least according to the governor, the suspension was due to a lack of prosecution of cases, not a free speech issue.
When announcing the suspension in early August, DeSantis said it was due to Warren’s refusal to uphold Florida law, following the attorney’s pledge to not seek prosecution against residents for abortions or performing gender-affirming care on minors.
“Our government is a government of laws, not a government of men, and what that means is that we govern ourselves based on a Constitutional system, and based on the rule of law,” DeSantis said at the time. “What we’ve seen over the past few years is individual prosecutors take it upon themselves to determine which laws they like and will enforce, and which laws they don’t like and don’t enforce.”
Warren instead asserted that DeSantis was suspending him over a political disagreement, violating his free speech rights and ignoring the will of Florida voters in Hillsborough County.
“Today’s political stunt is an illegal overreach that continues a dangerous pattern by Ron DeSantis of using his office to further his own political ambition,” Warren said after the suspension. “It spits in the face of the voters of Hillsborough County who have twice elected me to serve them, not Ron DeSantis.”
As both sides of the legal battle filed in court, Judge Robert Hinkle, who is presiding, denied Warren’s motion for a preliminary injunction, but also partially denied the governor’s motion to dismiss the suit outright. Instead, the state-law claim was dismissed while the federal claim will proceed to trial in November.
In response to Hinkle’s order, Warren issued a statement on the trial schedule. Warren’s statement also says that the governor’s Chief of Staff, James Uthmeier, and former press secretary Christina Pushaw, might be called as witnesses, in addition to Attorney General Ashley Moody, Larry Keefe, and “a state representative, and three Florida sheriffs who spoke at the campaign rally-like press conference” in Tampa when the suspension was announced.
“We had requested a trial a month sooner, but the Court’s schedule makes sure the governor’s office can respond to Hurricane Ian while also helping the Court and the public get to the truth,” Warren said. “Providing documents and depositions will only take a few hours over the next several weeks, but it will have a huge impact on protecting democracy throughout our state and holding Ron DeSantis accountable for overturning the will of the voters.”
Warren also said that Hinkle “confirmed” the case was centered on the First Amendment, and that the federal case will work on “determining whether DeSantis violated Warren’s free speech rights by suspending Warren for speaking out in support of abortion rights and transgender Floridians.”
WFLA.com has reached out to the governor’s office for comment on the new status of the case as it heads to trial.