TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Florida’s conservative-leaning Supreme Court sounded skeptical on Wednesday about whether it would back a Democratic prosecutor’s bid to win back her job after she was ousted by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But the court was equally skeptical about a push from lawyers representing DeSantis seeking a ruling that would wipe out future legal challenges to his suspension powers.
DeSantis in August removed Monique Worrell, a Democrat elected by voters in Orange and Osceola counties, after he contended that she was too lenient with criminals and endangering the public by the way she was prosecuting crimes in her central Florida circuit that includes Orlando. DeSantis’ removal of Worrell followed his ouster of Andrew Warren, another Democratic prosecutor he expelled from office.
Worrell, who says her removal was politically motivated to help DeSantis’ bid on the presidential campaign, contends her suspension is invalid and that the governor cannot rely on examples of prosecutorial discretion as proof that she neglected her job or is incompetent.
Worrell, who attended the hearing with a crowd of supporters from the Orlando area, said afterward she remained hopeful the court would side with her. She called DeSantis’ actions “authoritarian” and said if the justices side with the governor “it will set the precedent whether or not the governor can single-handedly remove every Democrat in this state.”
“Our votes have been stolen, our justice has been killed and our democracy is being destroyed,” Worrell said.
The ruling could have broad implications since DeSantis has used his suspension power in a much more extensive way than previous governors, including removing an elected sheriff and an elections supervisor over their job performance. Past governors usually removed officials after they had been arrested.
DeSantis has frequently mentioned his decision to suspend Worrell and Warren as examples of him fighting back against “leftist” ideas on criminal justice that are in vogue in California.
Justices sounded unsure on whether Worrell’s case was something for them to decide, saying the facts behind the suspension are supposed to be reviewed by the Florida Senate. The Senate can uphold the governor’s suspension — or it has the power to reinstate someone back to office.
“The governor and the Senate have the constitutional responsibility to determine what falls in the scope of neglect of duty,” Justice Charles Canady, a former GOP member of Congress first appointed to the court by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, told the lawyer representing Worrell.
Justice John Couriel, a DeSantis appointee, said that some of the statistics compiled by the governor’s office to justify the suspension were a “fairly concrete allegation.”
Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz, also appointed by DeSantis, pointed out that the court had been “deferential” to the governor and his power in the past — a nod to rulings where they upheld previous suspensions, including that of the Broward county sheriff removed in part for his response to the mass shooting in Parkland.
The court also threw out a legal challenge filed by Warren, the Hillsborough County prosecutor that DeSantis removed just months before his reelection. But in that case, justices contended that Warren had waited too long before taking action.
Jeffrey DeSousa, who works for Attorney General Ashley Moody and represented the DeSantis administration before the court, argued that Worrell’s case was a “political question” and such legal challenges should be strictly limited. DeSousa, for example, said that a governor trying to suspend a House speaker would be an example of a removal that the Supreme Court has the authority to review.
That viewpoint, however, appeared to cause discomfort for Muñiz who said that it was the court’s “bread and butter” to hear such cases and that could mean walking away from a long line of rulings that dated back to the ‘30s in the state.
Justice Jorge Labarga, a Crist appointee often at odds with other justices in major cases, also wondered about the overall case and whether the suspension itself would have a “chilling effect” and prompt prosecutors to call the governor’s office before they made a decision on how to prosecute a crime.
Worrell, who said the battle has taken a toll on her financially and on her family, said she had to take her case to the court because she had doubts the GOP-controlled Senate would evaluate the case fairly, pointing to their decision to back DeSantis in his battle with Disney and bowing to him on new congressional maps that dismantled a north Florida seat held by a Black Democrat.
“Up until now, whatever the governor wants, he has gotten,” said Worrell, who vowed she would seek another term as state attorney in 2024.
Source : Politico