Decades-Old Cases Dusted Off in Andrew Warren Fight

TALLAHASSEE — As suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren runs in November to try to regain his job, a legal battle with Gov. Ron DeSantis continues playing out at a federal appeals court.

A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in January sided with Warren in a constitutional challenge to DeSantis’ decision in 2022 to suspend him, but the legal dispute rolls on.

In the latest twist, the Atlanta-based appeals court in April ordered lawyers for DeSantis and Warren to file briefs addressing two seemingly contradictory U.S. Supreme Court opinions, including one that dates back a century.

That 1924 opinion rejected an attempt by Oklahoma Gov. Jack Walton to stop state lawmakers’ impeachment proceedings against him. Walton had declared martial law in an attempt to quell violence by the Ku Klux Klan, but the court said it lacked the authority to intervene.

“A court of the United States, sitting as a court of equity, is without jurisdiction of a suit to enjoin the prosecution of a proceeding to remove a state official from office,” the opinion said.

The other ruling, in a case known as Bond v. Floyd, centered on the Georgia Legislature’s refusal to seat Julian Bond, a civil-rights leader who was elected along with 10 other Black men to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965. State lawmakers targeted Bond because of statements he made opposing the Vietnam War.

Reaching the opposite conclusion from the 1924 case, the 1966 Supreme Court opinion — which Warren’s team has relied on in the fight with DeSantis — said “that this court has jurisdiction to review the question of whether the action of the Georgia House of Representatives deprived Bond of federal constitutional rights.”

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Suspended Hillsborough County Andrew Warren continues to fight to try to get his job back. Tom Urban/File

Responding to the appeals court’s April order, DeSantis’ lawyers filed a brief Friday that included numerous citations to opinions and comments from the 1800s and argued that federal courts have no power to “intervene in matters concerning the appointment and removal of state officers.”

The concept dates back to the origins of the nation, according to the state’s lawyers.

“The rule that federal courts have no equitable power to interfere with the appointment and removal of state officers has deep historical roots that trace to the founding,” they wrote.

The brief said Warren’s challenge to the suspension-and-removal process “mirrors the state impeachment process at issue in Walton (and) ‘is no case for’ a federal ‘court of equity.’” It said the challenge should be handled in state proceedings, such as during a hearing at the Florida Senate, which has ultimate authority to decide whether to remove suspended officials.

Warren, however, filed a brief Friday that argued the 1924 opinion “is irrelevant.” It said the decision addresses “only the traditional scope of equity jurisdiction in the English Court of Chancery, the historical practices of which Congress adopted in the Judiciary Act of 1789.”

The federal court’s jurisdiction was expanded as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which allows people to sue state and federal officials who violate their constitutional rights, Warren’s lawyers added. What is known as Section 1983 of the law is frequently relied upon in civil-rights litigation, such as in the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that barred segregation in schools.

“The very purpose of (Section) 1983 was to interpose the federal courts between the states and the people, as guardians of the people’s federal rights — to protect the people from unconstitutional action under color of state law, whether that action be executive, legislative, or judicial,” Warren’s lawyers wrote.

DeSantis’ suspension of the twice-elected Democratic prosecutor has drawn widespread legal and political attention since it was issued in 2022. DeSantis targeted statements Warren signed about abortion laws, as well as policies adopted by Warren that the governor maintained were anathema to the state attorney’s role as top prosecutor.

Warren filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the suspension violated his First Amendment rights. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in January 2023 found that the First Amendment protected Warren on two factors — his political affiliations and advocacy for criminal-justice reform. But the judge concluded that DeSantis would have suspended Warren based on other factors that were not protected by the First Amendment. As a result, Hinkle said he lacked the authority to reinstate the prosecutor.

The Florida Supreme Court in January also rejected an attempt by Warren to be reinstated.

But a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court on Jan. 10 ordered Hinkle to reconsider Warren’s lawsuit and vacated the district judge’s decision. DeSantis has asked the full appeals court to take up the case.

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Amid the continued legal wrangling, Warren launched a campaign last month to try to get elected state attorney in November. Suzy Lopez, a Republican who was appointed by DeSantis to replace Warren, also is running.

In their brief filed Friday, Warren’s lawyers warned that embracing DeSantis’ arguments about the 1924 opinion “would invalidate many federal statutes and overrule innumerable” court decisions.

“The governor appears to contend that federal courts are forever limited to the traditional practices of the English Court of Chancery, even if Congress has passed a statute granting broader authority. Not only is that position egregiously incorrect and foreclosed by the very cases on which the governor relies, but it also would abrogate dozens of federal laws, overrule decisions of this (appeals) court, and contradict numerous Supreme Court cases, including decisions issued within the last two years,” Warren’s lawyers argued.

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