Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) suspended the Orlando-area state attorney Wednesday, saying she was “clearly and fundamentally derelict” in her duty.
DeSantis removed Monique Worrell, a Democrat, from her job as the chief prosecutor for Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court at a brief news conference in Tallahassee. It’s the second time in a year that the governor, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, suspended an elected Democrat from office.
“The state of Florida is a law-and-order state,” DeSantis said from the room of the Florida Cabinet. “Refusing to faithfully enforce the laws of Florida puts our communities in danger and victimizes innocent Floridians.”
Worrell called the move “a political hit job” by a “weak dictator.”
“This is a smokescreen for his failing and disastrous presidential campaign,” Worrell said at a news conference outside her office in Orlando.
The action by the governor, who has largely been absent from Florida as he campaigns in early primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, came five days after two Orlando police officers were shot and injured during a traffic stop. The suspected shooter was later killed by SWAT officers.
The local police union accused Worrell of being “soft on crime,” on Monday — a theme DeSantis echoed Wednesday.
The suspect, Daton Viel, 28, had a long criminal history and had been arrested in March for sexual assault against a child but was released on bond.
“Bond is something that individuals are entitled to as a matter of law. In this case, the court determined that this individual was entitled to bond,” Worrell said at a news conference earlier this week defending her office. “I don’t determine who gets out of jail. All I do is uphold the law.”
But DeSantis’s office has had Worrell under scrutiny for more than a year. Worrell, the state attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, which includes Orange and Osceola counties, was elected in 2020 with 66 percent of the vote. She ran as a liberal prosecutor who promised “restorative justice.” She said crime rates have fallen in Orlando since she took office.
“Three years ago, I was elected to do things unconventionally, to do things differently,” she said. “I didn’t hide. I did exactly what I said I would do, and that’s what you want from elected officials.”
Worrell, the second African American elected to the position and the first of Caribbean descent, said she will continue her reelection bid.
In June 2021, Worrell signed a pledge, sponsored by a nationwide organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, that says prosecutors would use “our settled discretion and limited resources” to avoid criminalizing people who seek gender-affirming care. The pledge came as DeSantis was vowing to “root out” liberal prosecutors who he blamed for rising crime rates in some of the country’s cities.
The governor’s interest in Worrell grew more intense this year after three people, including a 9-year-old girl and a local television reporter, were killed in a shooting in Orlando. The 19-year-old man who allegedly carried out the attack had been arrested previously on a weapons charge, but that charge had been dismissed.
DeSantis’s office began requesting records related to the suspect’s prior arrests. But families of those killed in the shooting defended Worrell and urged DeSantis not to take action against her.
“The families believe this all smells and smacks of political opportunism,” Mark NeJame, an attorney who represents the victims, said at a news conference in March.
Last August, after what critics said was a cursory investigation, DeSantis suspended twice-elected Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren.
More than 80 prosecutors nationwide signed the pledge sponsored by Fair and Just Prosecution, which advocates for criminal justice reform. In addition to Worrell, Warren had also signed the same pledge related to gender-affirming care.
DeSantis was irked that Warren had signed it, as well as a separate statement regarding not using resources to pursue cases against women who obtain abortions and doctors who perform them. DeSantis called the actions “liberal,” said it was a “pathogen” he would not allow to spread in Florida.
Warren sued DeSantis, and while a U.S. District Court judge agreed with Warren that DeSantis had violated the state’s constitution and violated his First Amendment rights by suspending him, he ruled he couldn’t interfere in a state matter.
Two weeks after he was suspended, Warren filed a lawsuit in federal court against DeSantis, accusing the governor of “retaliation” while arguing his First Amendment rights had been violated. A federal district judge ruled earlier this year that DeSantis has violated Warren’s First Amendment rights and the Florida Constitution.
But the judge added the court did not have the authority to reinstate Warren as state attorney.
Warren issued a statement shortly after DeSantis suspended Worrell.
“Another illegal and unconstitutional attack on democracy by a small, scared man who is desperate to save his political career,” Warren said. “He wants to be a bully, but he’s actually a coward who has repeatedly violated the rule of law and the will of the voters to cover up his own weakness.”
Democratic state lawmakers criticized the suspension. Congressman Maxwell Frost, who represents Orlando, said DeSantis had been trying to build a case against Worrell for months but took action now because “his presidential campaign is up in flames.”
State Rep. Rita Harris (D-Orlando) called it a “gross abuse of power” directed at the only Black female state attorney in Florida.
On Wednesday, DeSantis appointed Andrew A. Bain, an Orlando judge, to replace Worrell. DeSantis and other officials left after their news conference without taking questions.
Bain said at Wednesday’s news conference that he would seek to “restore faith in the law, restore our public trust,” while Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd praised DeSantis’s decision and said, “none of this would have been possible if we didn’t have a governor, governor DeSantis, who said, ‘I’m going to do what’s right.’”
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, said Worrell has dismissed or declined to file charges at a higher rate than any other state attorney in Florida and cited Democratic officials in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties who she said had significantly lower rates of no charges and dismissals.
DeSantis is pitching himself as a tough-on-crime candidate on the presidential campaign trail and often touts his suspension of Warren in stump speeches.
“I removed him from his post, and we ensured the rule of law in the state of Florida,” he declared to applause on Saturday at a barn in Tama, Iowa.
DeSantis is polling a distant second to former president Donald Trump in the GOP primary. The suspension of Worrell — which Fox News reported first — will give DeSantis another example to tout with voters as he argues he’s been bolder than other Republican leaders in taking dramatic actions to achieve conservative ends.
His beleaguered presidential bid has gone through shake-up after shake-up, and this week campaign officials said that James Uthmeier, DeSantis’s chief of staff in the governor’s office, would take a “leave of absence” to become campaign manager. Uthmeier was closely involved in DeSantis’s decision to suspend Warren.
Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.