Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, considered a possible 2024 Republican presidential contender, will not be forced to reinstate an elected state prosecutor he suspended over his pledge not to bring criminal cases against people seeking or providing abortions, a federal judge ruled on Friday.
US District Judge Robert Hinkle in the state capital, Tallahassee, ruled against prosecutor Andrew Warren, a Democrat, in his lawsuit seeking to be reinstated as head of the state attorney's office in Tampa.
Conduct, not speech
DeSantis on August 4 barred Warren from performing any official "act, duty or function of public office."
Hinkle found that Warren's suspension violated Florida's state constitution, but the judge said the US Constitution barred him from issuing a reinstatement order "against a state official based only on a violation of state law.
The court also wrote that "Mr. Warren's actual performance as a reform prosecutor was conduct, not speech protected by the First Amendment."
Lawyers for Warren and a DeSantis representative did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
Florida law bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The prosecutor, who won re-election in 2020 as the Hillsborough County state attorney, sued DeSantis in August, claiming that the governor retaliated unlawfully against him for political reasons after he joined prosecutors around the country on June 24 in signing a statement vowing not to use their offices to criminalize reproductive health decisions.
A frequent critic of DeSantis, Warren argued in the lawsuit that his abortion stance was protected under the US Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of free speech and that the governor's action also usurped the authority given to state attorneys under the Florida Constitution.
The lawsuit said the litigation was intended "to confirm that the First Amendment still applies even though DeSantis is the Governor of Florida and that the Constitution of the State of Florida means what the courts say it means, not whatever DeSantis needs it to mean to silence his critics, promote his loyalists, and subvert the will of the voters."
Hinkle, appointed to his judgeship by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1996, presided over a three-day nonjury trial that began on November 29.
Lawyers for DeSantis argued that the governor suspended Warren from office not over his speech but his conduct as a prosecutor. The governor's attorneys said DeSantis "construed Mr. Warren's statements to be either blanket refusals to enforce Florida law or evidence that Mr. Warren was grossly ignorant of his official responsibilities."
Warren has said his office does not have a blanket policy on not prosecuting abortion-related cases.