TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Last December, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida asked two high-level aides at a meeting in his office if any elected state prosecutors were “not enforcing the law.”
It was a brief and unprompted inquiry, one of the aides said later in a deposition. But it soon led to the Republican governor zeroing in on Tampa’s top prosecutor, Andrew H. Warren, a Democrat with a progressive policy bent. In August, flanked by law enforcement officers, Mr. DeSantis made the startling announcement that he was suspending Mr. Warren from office, chiefly for pledging that he would not prosecute those who seek or provide abortions.
Whether the suspension violated Mr. Warren’s free speech rights and represented an overreach of the governor’s executive authority are now questions before a federal judge in a trial that began on Tuesday in Tallahassee, the state capital. Mr. Warren had sued Mr. DeSantis, seeking to be reinstated.
“It’s been 117 days since the governor suspended democracy,” Mr. Warren said outside the federal courthouse in downtown Tallahassee before the trial got underway. “A trial is the search for the truth, and, in this building, the truth matters.”
The trial is a high-profile challenge of Mr. DeSantis, who cruised to re-election and appears to be Republicans’ favorite potential alternative to former President Donald J. Trump in the 2024 presidential contest. In the lead-up to the Nov. 8 election, Mr. DeSantis frequently told cheering crowds how he had suspended Mr. Warren for what he called incompetence and neglect of duty. Months earlier, Mr. DeSantis had enacted a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
“Governor DeSantis suspended Mr. Warren for refusing to enforce the law,” George Ty Levesque, one of the governor’s lawyers, said in his opening statement.
Mr. DeSantis’s team argued that Mr. Warren had issued “blanket” policies against prosecuting minor crimes, as well as crimes involving abortions and gender-affirming care. Mr. Warren, who was the first witness to take the stand, said his policies were not blanket refusals but rather written to give prosecutors discretion. He characterized his ouster as political retaliation over his public disagreements with the governor.
Mr. Warren was one of 90 elected prosecutors across the country who in June signed a statement against criminalizing abortion that was put out by Fair and Just Prosecution, a group of elected prosecutors who espouse policies like reducing the use of fines, fees and bail and expanding alternatives to incarceration. He had also signed an earlier pledge not to criminalize transgender people and gender-affirming health care, which the group also disseminated.
Mr. DeSantis, who has repeatedly tested the boundaries of his executive authority, has been much more aggressive than his predecessors in suspending elected officials, who in prior administrations were most often removed from office when they had been criminally charged with wrongdoing. Under Florida law, a governor can suspend state officials for wrongdoing that includes neglect of duty, incompetence, malfeasance, drunkenness or commission of a felony.
The fast-tracked bench trial before Judge Robert L. Hinkle of the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee is expected to last from three to five days. The judge ruled last week that Mr. DeSantis, the defendant in the case, could not be called as a witness for Mr. Warren’s case in chief.
Mr. Warren’s lawyers could try to call Mr. DeSantis as a rebuttal witness, but Judge Hinkle, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, indicated last week that he would probably not grant such a request.
The losing side in the case is expected to appeal.
Internal texts, emails and other records obtained by Mr. Warren’s defense lawyers ahead of the trial, as well as depositions of some of Mr. DeSantis’s top aides, showed how the administration had quietly built its case for suspending Mr. Warren for months — and had considered how removing him from office would play in the public eye.
Suspending Mr. Warren “is likely to increase Warren’s profile,” read a chart listing “drawbacks” for the various actions the governor could take. Under “benefits,” the chart read: “A leftist prosecutor is removed from a position of power.”
The day before Mr. DeSantis announced Mr. Warren’s suspension, the governor’s press secretary at the time, Christina Pushaw, wrote on Twitter: “Prepare for the liberal media meltdown of the year.”
Mr. Warren, who was in his second term as the chief prosecutor for the 13th Judicial Circuit, testified on Tuesday that he had had no idea he was going to be removed from office.
He was overseeing a grand jury proceeding in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located, on Aug. 4 when he received an email informing him of his suspension. Before reviewing the details, he went back to his office. A few minutes later, Larry Keefe, the governor’s public safety czar, and two sheriff’s deputies knocked on his door.
Mr. Warren said he had asked Mr. Keefe for a chance to review the governor’s order.
“You cannot have a chance to review,” Mr. Warren said Mr. Keefe had told him. “You need to leave your office immediately.”
Mr. Keefe was one of the aides in Mr. DeSantis’s office last December when the governor inquired about looking into the actions of elected state attorneys. The other was James Uthmeier, the governor’s chief of staff.
A day before the suspension, on Aug. 3, Mr. DeSantis gave his general counsel, Ryan Newman, handwritten edits to the proposed executive order suspending Mr. Warren, court records show. The governor had staff members add language describing abortion as the “dismemberment” of an “unborn child.” He also asked that the order list the other reasons for Mr. Warren’s suspension “before abortion.”
But Ray Treadwell, the governor’s chief deputy general counsel, said in a deposition that it had been Mr. Warren’s signing of the pledge not to prosecute people who obtain or provide abortions that had brought about his suspension.
“I will say emphatically that it was the abortion statement that drove our recommendation across the goal line,” Mr. Treadwell said.
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