Ron DeSantis nullifies another election

This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.

Ron DeSantis must believe his path to the White House cuts through Florida’s democracy. What else explains the Republican governor’s ouster Wednesday of another Democratic prosecutor, this one in Orlando, just as his presidential campaign continues to tank? The governor has again abused his authority by weaponizing his office, making a mockery of elections, the rule of law and his fitness for higher office.

DeSantis suspended Monique Worrell, the elected state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties, accusing the top prosecutor in central Florida of neglect and incompetence for allowing violent offenders, drug traffickers and others “to evade incarceration.” DeSantis said prosecutors in Worrell’s office were “prevented or discouraged” from obtaining minimum mandatory sentences for gun crimes, drug trafficking and serious charges involving juvenile offenders. These practices, the governor wrote in his suspension order, amounted to a misuse of Worrell’s prosecutorial discretion and a violation of Florida law.

Her removal comes nearly a year to the day that DeSantis suspended Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, another locally elected Democrat, for his “avowed refusal to enforce certain criminal laws” — an allegation a federal judge this year flatly dismissed as “false” and a pretext for “bringing down a reform prosecutor — a prosecutor whose performance did not match the governor’s law-and-order agenda.” U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle ruled in January that the move violated both the state and U.S. constitutions.

Worrell, first elected in 2020 with 66% of the vote, blasted the governor’s basis for removing her and vowed to appeal in court and to seek reelection next year. She and other Democratic leaders called the suspension politically motivated and a “hit job” orchestrated in part by disgruntled area police.

The suspension shows how far the governor is willing to press his authority and to substitute his discretion for that of other elected officials. Florida law gives a governor broad powers to remove officials from office, which is appropriate for those charged with a crime, or who are clearly incompetent or inattentive to their duties.

But in his nearly five years as governor, DeSantis has exercised that authority more aggressively than his recent predecessors. In Worrell’s case, the governor’s office pointed to a number of incidents to justify suspending her. Several of those examples involved matters over a defendant’s bond, pretrial release or sentencing — decisions left to a judge, not prosecutors.

Where does this weaponization of the criminal justice system end? Does Republican control of the Legislature and the courts translate to open season on Democratic office-holders and the outcome of elections? Are communities that embrace restorative justice policies consigned to the whim of one ruling party in Tallahassee? And what would Republicans — or frankly, anyone — think if a Democratic governor and Legislature were to copycat the practice and wield this hammer themselves over local sheriffs, prosecutors, school board members and others?

Florida was a place people from places like Cuba and Venezuela fled to for generations to escape autocratic control. Now, DeSantis makes the state look like a 21st century banana republic. It doesn’t seem to be helping his presidential campaign and it’s certainly not good for Florida’s democracy. Taken together with his attacks on public schools, voting and free speech, this is another assault on bedrock civic institutions. And it’s leading down a dangerous path for American society.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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