A 'partisan coup' or 'bold action'? How DeSantis keeps suspending elected officials not charged with crimes
South Florida Sun-Sentinel September 24, 2022
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Gov. Ron DeSantis has pursued an expansive view of his executive authority, ordering high-profile removals of local elected officials who haven't been charged with crimes.
Governors routinely have used their power under the Florida Constitution to suspend elected officials from office — when they've been charged with crimes.
Though there is precedent for the DeSantis approach of removing elected officials who haven't been criminally charged — including controversial, high-profile suspensions of two successive Broward supervisors of elections — it had been highly unusual.
That is, until DeSantis became governor.
In his nearly four years in office, he has removed eight county elected officials who weren't charged with crimes, using his power more expansively than his predecessor, the South Florida Sun Sentinel's review of state suspension orders shows. DeSantis' most recent actions came in August, when he suspended and replaced four members of the Broward School Board and the Hillsborough County state attorney. None of the five has been charged with crimes.
These types of suspensions have bookended his time as governor, so far.
Within his first 10 days of taking office in January 2019, DeSantis removed the elected Broward County sheriff, the elected Palm Beach County supervisor of elections, and the elected Okaloosa County schools superintendent, alleging incompetence or poor performance for events that took place on their parts for events that took place before he was governor.
None of those three ousted officials — Sheriff Scott Israel, Elections Supervisor Susan Booker or Schools Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson — was ever charged with a crime.
A different approach
DeSantis' actions are a notable departure from his immediate predecessor, former Gov. Rick Scott, now the state's junior senator.
During his eight years — a total of 96 months — as governor, Scott suspended one elected official who hadn't been criminally charged.
The DeSantis suspensions of elected officials who weren't charged with crimes affected seven Democrats and one Republican. The one such Scott suspension was of a Democrat. Both DeSantis and Scott are Republicans.
"All Florida governors in the modern era have suspended local officials at times. But to my knowledge, it's almost always been after someone was charged with a crime or indicted, and that's the difference," said Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida.
"It's not that it's never happened," Jewett said about a governor suspending an elected official who hasn't been criminally charged. "But it's been very infrequent for governors to do that. We certainly have never had the number" ordered by DeSantis.
"It's in the Constitution, and it is an executive power. But I think the thought was that it would be used sparingly, and only in the most egregious or glaring cases. It's happened so often now with this governor that it's really opened him up to charges of partisan political behavior," Jewett said.
The recently suspended Hillsborough County state attorney, Andrew Warren, has filed a federal lawsuit arguing that DeSantis exceeded his authority and violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
On Monday, a U.S. District Court judge said he wanted to hear evidence and testimony at a full trial and denied Warren's motion for immediate reinstatement.
DeSantis typically acts quickly to suspend elected officials.
He suspended the four Broward School Board members, all Democrats, seven days after the release of a damning August grand jury report condemning their performances. His January 2019 suspension of Democrat Israel and Republican Jackson came three days after DeSantis was inaugurated.
By contrast, he didn't act as expeditiously in the case of Joe Martinez, a Republican Miami-Dade County commissioner, who turned himself in Aug. 30 on felony counts of unlawful compensation and conspiracy to commit unlawful compensation. DeSantis suspended Martinez on Tuesday, 21 days later.
Of the 17 other county and municipal elected officials who have been charged with crimes since DeSantis took office, the average time between charging and suspension is 6.2 days.
It has also been almost nine months since DeSantis said his staff was considering what to do about the current Broward sheriff, Gregory Tony, appointed by DeSantis and since elected to a full term by voters.
On Feb. 1, the day after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found Tony repeatedly lied on law enforcement applications, DeSantis at a news conference said that, "We are going to review everything, take a look. We saw the initial report. It will be something we will be reviewing in the coming days."
The Florida Constitution allows the governor to suspend "any county officer, for malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony."
The governor gets to appoint someone to fill the office as long as the person is suspended.
In his January 2019 inaugural address, DeSantis hinted at what might be coming: "So let there be no misunderstanding: As governor, I will lead with purpose and conviction on behalf of the people of Florida," he said. "If a local official is neglectful of required duties, I will remove the official."
Previous governors "have taken a much more strict interpretation" of the Constitution's suspension power than DeSantis.
Authority to suspend city, town or village elected officials is more limited. "(A)ny elected municipal officer indicted for crime may be suspended from office until acquitted," the Constitution states. In most cases the municipal government fills the vacancy in whatever method other vacancies are filled, usually by the city, town or village council or commission.
The DeSantis approach has alarmed Democrats, citing it as evidence of their view that the Republican governor has authoritarian tendencies.
"When somebody gets arrested or indicted, other governors have suspended people. This governor, if you look at him sideways, he'll suspend you — if you're a Democrat," said Broward County Commissioner Steve Geller, a former Florida Senate Democratic leader.
"How much of a democracy is it when you have an opinion contrary to the supreme leader he removes you?" Geller said. "It's mostly in Democratic areas. If you're going to say that seems a bit extreme, look at what he did to the state attorney in Hillsborough. The guy had not taken any official government action whatsoever at all, and he was suspended. And why was he suspended? Because he voiced an opinion that was different from the governor's."
The moves win plaudits from Republicans.
"If incompetence or neglect of duty is demonstrated or documented, then the governor not only has the right but the obligation to make sure that the public is being well served by the people who are doing those jobs," said Michael Barnett, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party.
"Maybe in the past governors have been more cautious and have taken more political calculations, not wanting to upset the apple cart by making a bold step such as removing a publicly elected official," Barnett said. "Governor DeSantis has proven his entire term he's not afraid to take bold action, regardless of what anyone might think — whether the Democrats, or people in the press, or even people in his own party.
"I think that's why he has so much popularity is because he's willing to do what's right or what he perceives as right regardless of the perceived political consequences."
DeSantis' moves always generate enormous attention. It's an approach that has been a hallmark of most of his administration, dating to the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Most Republicans seem to support Gov. DeSantis doing this. This is great," Jewett said. "Most Democrats just look at this as a partisan power play and one more example of Gov. DeSantis trying to make headlines for his presidential run."
Jewett said DeSantis' "suspensions and replacements look very political, partisan political."
He said it would lessen the political impact of those actions if he picked Democrats to replace suspended Democrats — the way then-Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, did in 2003 when he suspended Miriam Oliphant, the Democratic supervisor of elections in Broward County.
He said DeSantis opens himself up to criticism by picking four Republicans to replace the four Democratic Broward School Board members he suspended last month in the county with the largest number of registered Democrats in the state. "It really just looks like a partisan coup," he said.
DeSantis' media representatives didn't respond to emails last week and this week about his approach to suspensions of elected officials who haven't been charged with crimes. The campaign of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist — who was the state's Republican governor from 2007 to 2011 — also didn't respond to an inquiry.
A check on power?
There is a way to challenge the governor's power: Someone like a sheriff, supervisor of elections or school board member who is suspended can appeal to the Florida Senate. Senators have power to remove the person from the office — or reinstate the suspended official.
That's a significant safeguard, Barnett said, for anyone concerned about a governor's actions. "He can suspend, but the Senate has to uphold."
But it may be more theoretical than practical.
A Senate trial is a complex, drawn out and expensive undertaking for a suspended official, who has to pay for their own legal representation. And there are many reasons, largely political, that a suspended official has little chance of prevailing.
In the 2019 Israel case, the Senate used a special master — Dudley Goodlette, a highly respected former Republican state legislator and lawyer — to investigate. After a lengthy inquiry, Goodlette found there weren't grounds to remove Israel, and recommended that the Senate reinstate him.
The Senate voted almost entirely along party lines — with the Republican majority supporting the Republican governor — to uphold DeSantis' suspension of the Democratic sheriff and remove him from office.
Geller said the rejection of the Republican special master's recommendation signaled that the Senate would go along with such DeSantis moves. "If they had overturned the governor's position, I don't think he would have kept doing it," he said, which "meant he could keep doing it with complete impunity."
Since then, DeSantis' sway with the Legislature has increased.
As he's become more popular with Republican voters and seen as a likely candidate for his party's 2024 presidential nomination, lawmakers are loath to cross him. The Florida Senate historically displayed an independent streak, sometimes defying the wishes of a governor in the same party as the governor. "I have never seen a Legislature as subservient as this one is to a governor," said Geller, most of whose time in the Legislature was as a member of the minority party under Republican governors.
He doesn't see the Republican Senate majority overturning a DeSantis suspension decision. "Not gonna happen," Geller said. "The result is a foregone conclusion."
Senate records show the last elected official to be reinstated was former Leon County Supervisor of Elections Jan Pietrzyk.
Then-Gov. Bob Graham, a Democrat, suspended Republican Pietrzyk in 1986 over a botched primary election, but senators voted overwhelmingly to reinstate him after concluding his failures didn't reach the threshold for removal from office outlined in the state Constitution.
"As elected public officials, we find it difficult to remove people from office for, perhaps, being stupid," said John Vogt, the state Senate president at the time.
Other suspended officials, including Warren, have turned to the courts.
Suspended former Sheriff Scott Israel unsuccessfully sought state and federal court rulings reinstating him.
The Okaloosa County case ended with DeSantis lifting his suspension of Jackson, at which point she immediately resigned.
Former Broward supervisor of elections Brenda Snipes went to court after Scott suspended her. (She had earlier resigned, then Scott suspended her and she withdrew her resignation).
Snipes challenged the suspension in court. A federal judge ruled that Snipes could not be reinstated, but he rebuked Scott, saying he "vilified" her and didn't provide enough specific reasons backing up the suspension.
After DeSantis took office, he reached a deal with Snipes in which he lifted her suspension and she resigned.
©2022 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
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