06/13/2024

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Suspended Florida prosecutor slams ruling by DeSantis-packed court as endorsing governor’s ‘political stunt’

Suspended Florida prosecutor slams ruling by DeSantis-packed court as endorsing governor’s ‘political stunt’

Left: Suspended Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell (D). Right: Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Photo by Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images/Sipa USA).

The Supreme Court of Florida refused to reinstate an elected Democratic prosecutor who was suspended by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis for what the governor deemed “incompetence.”

Monique Worrell is an elected prosecutor for Orange-Osceola County, Florida. DeSantis suspended Worrell via executive order in August 2023 for alleged “neglect of duty” and “incompetence.”

In his order, the governor accused Worrell of having abused her prosecutorial discretion by systematically failing to seek mandatory minimum sentences under Florida law, and for not fully prosecuting repeat criminal offenders. DeSantis’s order prohibited Worrell from performing any acts, duties, or functions of public office, and suspended her indefinitely without pay.

DeSantis then appointed Andrew Bain, a former Orange County judge and member of the conservative Federalist Society, as a replacement for the entirety of Worrell’s suspension.

Worrell, a former public defender and professor at the University of Florida, sued DeSantis shortly after her suspension to get her job back. She alleged that her suspension had been invalid in that DeSantis failed to point to any actual malfeasance on her part.

In her filing, Worrell argued that she should not be blamed for case processing times and accused DeSantis of using his power to suspend as a “‘take my word for it’ license” to suspend anyone with whom DeSantis had political differences.

Worrell said that she handled her caseload in a manner consistent with ethical rules and exercised her prosecutorial discretion so as to conserve scarce prison resources.

“A state attorney’s duty is not to maximize incarceration rates at all costs,” Worrell argued in her complaint.

In its ruling Thursday, Florida’s top court sided with DeSantis, reasoning that, “Prosecutorial discretion is no complete defense to an allegation of incompetence or dereliction of duty.” Five of the seven justices of the court were appointed by DeSantis. The two who were not appointed by DeSantis — Justices Jorge Labarga and Charles Canady — were both appointed by DeSantis’s predecessor, Republican Charlie Crist.

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    The justices did not point to any specific wrongdoing on Worrell’s part, but simply concluded, “We cannot agree with Worrell that the allegations in the Executive Order are impermissibly vague,” and dismissed Worrell’s objection to vagueness as “really about the sufficiency of the evidence marshaled in the Executive Order.” The trier of fact has the task of sorting out any actual malfeasance, said the ruling.

    Labarga, the sole dissenter in the case, wrote that he would have granted Worrell’s petition because the allegations in DeSantis’s executive order were insufficient to provide Worrell with sufficient notice to allow her to mount a meaningful dissent.

    Another justice, Renatha Francis, voted with the majority, but authored a separate opinion criticizing justices for improperly involving themselves with gubernatorial suspensions of public officials.

    “Continued adherence to the current manner of deciding these suspension cases, I believe, does a disservice to our state constitution’s clear commitment of the power to review suspensions to the Senate,” Francis wrote.

    Worrell reacted to the ruling in a press release in which she said the outcome was “disappointing but not a surprise.”

    “The governor appointed most of the justices on Florida’s Supreme Court,” Worrell noted. “They took the easy way out by refusing to examine whether the governor’s claims had any factual basis. They do not, and the Court today, with the exception of the dissenting justice, rubber-stamped a political stunt.”

    Worrell pointed out that DeSantis’s executive order was “notably silent on violent crime statistics,” and said that violent crime rates were lower in her jurisdiction during her tenure than they had been in the prior decade.

    Worrell concluded her statement by taking aim at DeSantis for what she deemed political motives.

    We treated people equitably and fairly and worked to hold law enforcement accountable — which the governor does not like. I still believe in the right of voters to choose their State Attorney, even if Florida’s politics currently do not respect this principle. When I am reelected, I will continue putting public safety and accountability above politics. I wish the governor would do the same.

    Under Florida law, the state’s Republican-controlled senate has the responsibility to hold a trial that would decide Worrell’s ultimate fate.

    Worrell is not the only prosecutor DeSantis has suspended. The onetime presidential hopeful suspended Hillsborough County prosecutor Andrew Warren in August 2022, for similar concerns of alleged incompetence after Warren said he would not to prosecute violations of the state’s 15-week abortion ban.

    You can read the full ruling in the Worrell case here.

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