But neither offered grounds to reinstate Warren, giving DeSantis a legal victory.
DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske called it “a victory for the governor and a victory for the people of Florida.” Nevertheless, Hinkle’s 59-page warrant finds fault with the actions of DeSantis and his staff, as well as the case and facts they brought to trial.
“The record contains no trace of wrongdoing by Mr. Warren,” Hinkle wrote. “So far as this record reflects, he diligently and competently performed the duty to which he was elected, much as he told voters he would… the allegation that Mr. Warren neglected his duty or was incompetent is not correct.”
While Hinkle found no wrongdoing on Warren’s part, he concluded it was a matter of state.
DeSantis’ decision to suspend the twice-elected prosecutor in August alarmed many who saw it as an overstepping by the governor. One of Warren’s lawyers called it “a political hit.”
The popular Florida governor — who sailed for re-election in November and is widely regarded as a potential 2024 presidential candidate — justified the suspension by saying Warren had no right to “refuse to enforce Florida law.”
The Tampa district attorney said he was being punished for exercising his right to free speech. Earlier in the year, he signed two pledges written by Fair and Just Prosecution, an organization that advocates for reform-minded prosecutors. In one pledge, prosecutors vowed not to “criminalize decisions about reproductive health.” The second statement made similar vows regarding people seeking transgender health care.
Warren, who was the first witness in the five-day no-jury trial in Tallahassee in late November, said the issue was beyond him.
“As I’ve said from the start, there’s so much more at stake than my job,” Warren said at a news conference the morning the trial began. “We’re not just fighting to do the job I was elected to do, I’m fighting for the rights of voters all over Florida to have the elected officials of their choice.”
In his testimony at the trial, Warren said the pledges he signed were never implemented or adopted as official policy. Two assistant state attorneys in Warren’s office supported that claim, stating that they did not consider the statements to reflect actual policy. But Warren’s chief of staff said he thought the pledge to uphold abortion rights amounted to a policy directive.
In announcing the suspension, DeSantis also pointed to Warren’s decision not to prosecute 67 protesters arrested for unlawful gathering during demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department in 2020.
Warren was also instrumental in helping formerly incarcerated people regain their right to vote after DeSantis signed into law restrictions on a voter-approved constitutional amendment that would allow them to register to vote. The District Attorney has also established a Conviction Review Office to investigate claims of innocence.
DeSantis condemned actions as those of an “awakened” prosecutor.
The trial offered a rare glimpse into the inner workings of DeSantis and his staff. Evidence and public records showed that the governor’s office was excited about the “completely free-earned media” that resulted from the press conference where he announced the suspension. Careful personnel records estimate that the governor, who was running for re-election at the time, earned media attention worth $2.4 million.
Testimony also revealed that while DeSantis said he asked his staff for a report from prosecutors who were supposed to “take the law into their own hands”, the focus was on Warren from the start.
Larry Keefe, a former Florida U.S. attorney who referred to DeSantis as the state’s “security czar,” testified that he had consulted with some Republican prosecutors and sheriffs, as well as GOP donors from the Tampa area, but had no extensive investigation executed.
During the trial, Warren’s lawyers asked members of DeSantis’ staff what the governor means when he calls people “awake.”
“To me, it means someone who believes there are systemic injustices in the criminal justice system and can refuse to fully enforce and enforce the law on that basis,” said Ryan Newman, DeSantis general counsel.
Newman added that “it would be the belief that there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.”