Add the Southern Poverty Law Center to a list of people and organizations challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis’ suspension of Democratic State Attorney Monique Worrell.
The complaint, which seeks injunctive and declaratory relief by reversing Worrell’s removal, argues DeSantis disenfranchised nearly 396,000 residents who elected her by a 67% share of the vote in 2020.
SPLC senior staff attorney Matletha Bennette said in a statement that DeSantis’ decision to suspend Worrell “undermines free and fair elections in Florida” and, accordingly, should be undone.
“It is a flagrant abuse of power in pursuit of a harmful and anti-democratic agenda,” she said. “Through this lawsuit, we will defend the rights of voters to elect candidates of their choice without fearing that a Governor will override their vote.”
DeSantis suspended Worrell on Aug. 9 in the wake of a series of Pine Hill shootings that left three dead in February. The crimes drew scrutiny from the Governor’s office and calls for Worrell’s job by U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.
Worrell’s office has come under fire because the alleged shooter, Keith Moses, was on the street despite a lengthy criminal record that included violent offenses and unpunished probation violations prior to the murders.
The suspension also followed a shooting incident in which police say a man named Daton Viel critically injured two officers. Viel had previous run-ins with law enforcement, and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said publicly that it was partly due to Worrell’s office declining to seek a pre-trial case against Viel.
DeSantis’ lengthy executive order suspending Worrell — which came almost exactly a year after he removed Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren from office — censured Worrell for not seeking mandatory minimum sentences on crimes involving firearms.
Of 58 non-homicide robbery cases involving guns that the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office referred to Worrell in 2021 and 2022, the order said Worrell’s office sought just one mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years by May this year.
Worrell has since filed suit against DeSantis in the Florida Supreme Court to reverse her suspension. In that effort, she’s received support from her other fellow progressives, including U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost and Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried, who have decried her firing.
Justices set aside 20 minutes Dec. 6 for Worrell to argue that the Governor’s actions were unlawful and politically motivated. They allotted the same amount of time to DeSantis.
Five former Supreme Court justices and 121 current and former prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and law enforcement professionals from across the country are backing Worrell’s fight for reinstatement.
“Worrell’s suspension is a direct attack on the ability of Floridians to make their voices heard at the ballot box,” Florida Rising Senior Director of Strategy Sheena Rolle said in a statement Thursday. “DeSantis is trying to intimidate elected Democratic officials into shying away from reforms. We are standing up against his abuse of power.”
DeSantis has said he removed Worrell for “neglect of duty and incompetence.”
“Prosecutors have a duty to faithfully enforce the law,” he said shortly after he issued the executive order. “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.”
Worrell, meanwhile, argued the Governor did not name “any ‘practices or policies’” of hers that “could constitute a refusal to exercise prosecutorial discretion.”
“To the extent the Governor disagrees with how Ms. Worrell is lawfully exercising her prosecutorial discretion, such a disagreement does not constitute a basis for suspension from elected office,” her lawsuit said. “Ms. Worrell was elected to serve as State Attorney, not the Governor.”
Jacob Ogles contributed to this report.