It was a striking scene, not just for its extraordinary outcome, but for how it had been choreographed. The event was premeditated to trigger — as his spokeswoman wrote on Twitter the night before — “the liberal media meltdown of the year.” Pat Kemp, a Democrat who sits on the local Hillsborough County commission, described it as “our own Jan. 6th moment.”
“DeSantis has a blank check,” said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, a private school in Fort Lauderdale. “There is no part of the constitution now that is protecting democracy because the checks and balances on him have been completely eviscerated. If he wins, he’ll spin it as a mandate and say, ‘If Floridians didn’t like any of what I did, they would’ve vote me out.’ “
DeSantis justified the removal of Warren as necessary to protect Floridians from an elected official who won’t follow the law. Warren had pledged in a pair of letters to use prosecutorial discretion to not go after people who seek abortions or gender affirming care as well as those who provide those services.
“That is not how a rule of law can operate and ultimately, you cannot have safe and strong communities,” DeSantis said.
His critics have bristled at these decisive and contentious actions as an overreach of his office. The two leading Democratic candidates for governor in Florida, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Rep. Charlie Crist, likened DeSantis to a dictator after he suspended Warren.
“Previously, under past Republican governors, you could expect policies to have a conservative bent,” said state House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell. “But this is not a conservative bent, this is a DeSantis bent. It’s not about what the party wants, it’s about what he wants.”
“The dynamics have been this way for the last two years,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg. “I think it maintains its trajectory.”
Brandes is the rare Republican who has publicly criticized DeSantis, but he’s also reaching his term limit this year. He’s leaving behind a legislature that is far more conservative than when he entered office in 2012 and one that will be shaped considerably by DeSantis, who has waded into GOP primaries, at times boosting candidates over others preferred by legislative leadership in his party.
Whether DeSantis continues to amass authority “really depends on whether the House and Senate and courts see themselves as independent bodies that are there to provide a check and balance to the system,” Brandes said. “If they forget that or if they believe that’s not necessary, then we go down one path. But if just one of those groups stand up and say, ‘We have a different perspective,’ I think you’ll see a different outcome.”
The Florida constitution gives the state Senate authority to reinstate Warren. Few expect it will. Senate leaders declined to publicly comment on the suspension, but in a telling series of post, the presumptive Speaker of the House for 2023, Rep. Paul Renner, applauded DeSantis on Twitter minutes after he suspended Warren, calling it a “decisive action.”
“The Florida way puts public safety first,” Renner wrote.
Warren has vowed to mount a legal challenge, arguing DeSantis has overstepped his constitutional authority. That case would likely end up before the state Supreme Court, a panel appointed entirely by Republican governors. On Friday, DeSantis nominated his fourth judge to the high court, meaning a majority of the seven-member panel owe their jobs to DeSantis.
Jarvis, who teaches the Florida constitution and has written textbooks on the topic, said lawmakers did not envision a DeSantis-type executive when they wrote the latest version of the state constitution in 1968. They drew up a system of government that vested within the Legislature the authority to overrule the governor on several fronts, including appointments and suspensions, and oversight of executive administration. They initially placed considerable power in the hands of a Cabinet, six independently and constitutionally elected state executives who served alongside the governor.
With those checks, the constitution also awarded the governor incredible discretion to suspend elected officials for “malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony.” Past governors have used the power sparingly to remove elected officials accused of egregious actions or violations of local trust, said Susan MacManus, a retired political science professor and the foremost expert of Florida’s political history.
However, Warren was not suspended for anything he had done, but for something he suggested he someday would not do. If that is the standard for removing someone from office, then, Jarvis said, there is little to stop DeSantis from removing any official he disagrees with — an alarming reality given that his administration has labeled political dissenters “groomers” and characterized Democrats as lawless socialists.
“This is sending a message to every other officer that is subject to his suspension power, ‘If you don’t toe the line or if I see you as a political threat, I won’t hesitate to suspend you,'” Jarvis said. “And I know the senate will remove you.”
MacManus said it’s presumptive to speculate that DeSantis in a second term won’t face new headwinds or changing sentiment from voters and fellow lawmakers. There are polls that show large swaths of voters fear for the future of democracy, though they often clash with other surveys that suggest crime remains a top issue for much of the country, she noted.
“It looks insurmountable right now, but politics shift, issues shift,” she said. “A snap of a finger, things can change.”