Monique Worrell: DeSantis suspends Orlando-area state attorney in second sacking of democratically elected prosecutor


Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday announced the suspension of the Orlando-area state attorney, the second time he has removed a democratically elected prosecutor whose politics did not align with his conservative views.

DeSantis said he was removing Monique Worrell of Florida’s 9th Judicial Circuit for “neglect of duty and incompetence” and accused her of pursuing lenient sentences and declining to prosecute certain charges.

“Prosecutors have a duty to faithfully enforce the law. One’s political agenda cannot trump this solemn duty. Refusing to faithfully enforce the laws of Florida puts our communities in danger and victimizes innocent Floridians,” DeSantis said.

The criticisms echo ones raised last year when DeSantis contentiously removed another Democratic state attorney, Tampa’s elected prosecutor Andrew Warren. Democrats accused DeSantis, at the time, of abusing his power for political gain. A federal judge reviewing Warren’s suspension raised questions about the political motivations behind the maneuver, noting DeSantis’ office had calculated the dollar amount of free media generated by his actions.

But the move earned DeSantis glowing coverage from conservative outlets and the episode became a staple of the governor’s political speeches in the lead up to the launch of a White House bid.

Now, with his presidential campaign struggling to gain traction, DeSantis has once again used his vast executive authority in a way that has already brought the national spotlight on him. By the time DeSantis stepped to the lectern in Tallahassee’s capitol building to deliver the news, Fox News had published a story on his latest maneuver.

DeSantis was joined at the news conference by two local sheriffs – neither of which serves a county that overlaps with Worrell’s jurisdiction. They used their time at the microphone to heap praise on the governor as a law and order leader.

“This governor has always put the victims, always put the law-abiding citizens ahead of the criminals. Always. And that’s exactly what he’s done here today,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said.

Worrell, who said she was informed of her suspension Wednesday morning by phone, vowed to fight back against her removal, calling it a “political hit job” orchestrated to benefit the Republican’s presidential campaign.

“I am a duly elected state attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit,” Worrell said at a news conference outside the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando. “And nothing done by a weak dictator can change that.”

Worrell said she is considering legal action, but also acknowledged the long odds.

On Thursday, she told CNN’s John Berman on “Anderson Cooper 360” that she will also run for the office again in 2024.

“I have filed for reelection, and I plan to continue to run and rewin my seat by the will of the voters the way democracy works in this country. And be the duly elected state attorney once again,” Worrell said.

The governor and local law enforcement, she told Berman, have been “pushing false narratives” about her role in the legal system.

“It’s really important to be clear the criminal legal system is a collaborative system. It doesn’t only rest on the shoulders of the state attorney,” Worrell said. “There is a judiciary. There is law enforcement. There is a defense bar. And these are the components of the criminal legal system. Any decisions that had been made by attorneys in my office have been ratified by the judiciary.”

The Florida constitution allows a governor to remove an elected official for “malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, habitual drunkenness, incompetence, or permanent inability to perform official duties.” No previous Florida executive has interpreted that power as broadly as DeSantis. The state Senate can reinstate Worrell, but the chamber is controlled by Republicans closely aligned with DeSantis and have rarely stood in his way.

Warren’s attempts at reinstatement have failed. A federal judge ruled DeSantis had acted unconstitutionally in suspending Warren, writing that there was “not a hint of misconduct by Mr. Warren” in the trial record, but he ultimately dismissed the case saying he did not have the power to intervene on a state matter. The state Supreme Court tossed Warren’s lawsuit in state court earlier this summer.

As a candidate, DeSantis has made reigning in government overreach a top priority, a promise that his critics say is in conflict with how he has led during episodes such as Wednesday. DeSantis has repeatedly blasted President Joe Biden for what he says is the “weaponization” of the US Department of Justice and has accused state and federal prosecutors of pursuing a political agenda in targeting former President Donald Trump.

According to her biography – which as of Wednesday morning was still posted on her office’s website – Worrell worked as a public defender in the Orlando area and later as a clinical law professor at the University of Florida College of Law.

In 2020, Worrell won a contested Democratic primary to become the party’s nominee for state attorney serving Orange and Osceola counties. She was elected that fall with 66% of the vote in a deeply blue part of the state.

“​Monique was elected to bring reform to a criminal legal system that is fundamentally flawed, in order to achieve equity and to move our system towards justice,” her bio said.

Worrell replaced Aramis Ayala, another reform prosecutor whose approach conflicted with the state’s Republican leadership. When Ayala announced she would not pursue capital punishment in any cases, then-Gov. Rick Scott moved death penalty cases to another state attorney though he did not suspend her from office.

DeSantis began to publicly lay the groundwork for Worrell’s ouster in February, when a teenage gunman in Orlando was accused of shooting and killing a 9-year-old girl, a journalist and a 38-year-old woman. DeSantis accused Worrell of failing to keep the gunman behind bars for a previous charge.

“I know the state attorney in Orlando thinks that you don’t prosecute people, and that’s the way that somehow you have better communities. That does not work,” DeSantis said at the time.

At Wednesday’s news conference, DeSantis and others pointed to heinous crimes from the past year allegedly committed by people with previous charges.

In suspending Worrell, DeSantis cited a “pattern or practice” to avoid mandatory sentences for gun crimes and minimum mandatory sentences for drug trafficking offenses. DeSantis also said Worrell had allowed juveniles to avoid “serious charges and incarceration” and had avoided “valid and applicable” sentencing enhancements or limiting charges for child pornography.

On Wednesday, Worrell disputed characterizations made by the Florida governor that her office was too lenient on criminals, insisting that crime is down under her watch. DeSantis never reached out to express concerns with her operation, she said.

Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Nikki Fried called Worrell’s ouster a “political hit job” that “threatens democracy” and demanded her immediate reinstatement.

“Ron’s presidential campaign has been a disaster of epic proportions, but attacking law and order in service of his culture wars isn’t the solution to his problems,” Fried said.

DeSantis replaced Worrell with Andrew Bain, who has served as a judge on the 9th Judicial Circuit.

DeSantis left the news conference without taking questions from reporters.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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