Last month, early in the morning on Wednesday, Aug. 9, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) paused his presidential campaign to take aim at the elected State Attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit, Monique Worrell.
As the third largest judicial circuit in Florida, the Ninth Judicial Circuit consists of Orange and Osceola counties, home to Orlando and Kissimmee. This is not the first time DeSantis set his sights on an elected state attorney. A little less than a year ago, he suspended State Attorney Andrew Warren, of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit in the Tampa area — in large part because Warren signed a pledge that he would not prosecute cases of abortion.
Unfortunately, this is becoming a trend in Florida.
In 2020, Monique Worrell was elected by 66.6% percent of the vote in Orange and Osceola counties and received nearly 400,000 votes. The people of the Ninth Judicial Circuit sent a clear message that they wanted her in office. Like every other elected official, not everyone agreed with Worrell’s platform and the decisions she made while in office.
Upon Worrell taking office as the duly elected state attorney, people in law enforcement lodged complaints that her office was not tough on crime, dropped too many cases and investigated and prosecuted law enforcement officers. As a local attorney, I heard this rhetoric in meetings and press conferences.
Then, earlier this year, on Feb. 22, things really heated up. A 19-year-old named Keith Moses shot and killed three people in Pine Hills, west of Orlando.
It was a horrible tragedy and our community was again grieving the loss of life. It didn’t take long for the governor to blame Worrell and her office for the killings, arguing that Moses should have already been in jail due to previous crimes and had the state attorney done her job the killings would not have happened. Worrell and her office soon after became the target of relentless scrutiny and investigation with the governor keeping a close eye on her cases, all through a political and partisan lens.
When DeSantis thought the time was right, not in an impartial sense but in a purely political sense, possibly to bolster his chances of securing the Republican presidential nomination, he suspended Worrell and replaced her with Judge Andrew Bain, whom DeSantis appointed to the bench in 2020. The same scenario unfolded in Tampa. When the governor suspended Warren, who was duly elected in 2016 and reelected in 2020, DeSantis slotted in Judge Susan Lopez, another one of his appointees.
Justifying these suspensions, DeSantis stated that “prosecutors have a duty to faithfully enforce the laws.” That is actually not correct. Law enforcement officers and agencies are responsible for enforcing the law; prosecutors are tasked with prosecuting people accused of breaking the laws. We all learned this at the beginning of Law and Order every week.
Prosecutors also have the discretion to decide how to utilize their offices’ finite resources in a way that best serves public safety and most effectively addresses the unique concerns and priorities of their jurisdiction, that is, the community they were elected to serve. I recall several administrations ago in the Orlando/Osceola state attorney’s office that prosecutors were refusing to file charges against people accused of “theft” for not returning rented furniture. The office felt like a collection agency for these rental businesses and decided not to prosecute those criminal charges. The difference then? The elected state attorney who made that decision was never suspended from office.
By way of explanation, most crimes in Florida have bonds where people pay money as a surety to ensure they will show back up to court. If a person is not charged with a life felony, a violation of probation or failure to appear, they are entitled to a bond. You cannot blame the state attorney or the judge when a person (Keith Moses, in this case), who by law has the right to bond out of jail, bonds out and kills someone. When tragedies happen, people are quick to say that if the person was in jail, then the tragedy would not have happened.
While technically it is true that had Moses been in jail, he would not have been able to kill the three victims, we do not hold people in jail without bond except for very limited circumstances. The other issue was that Moses had a juvenile case and some felt he should have been incarcerated previously for that charge. Juvenile criminal records are confidential so we will never know all the circumstances of that case and its outcome. We probably could prevent a lot of people from committing crimes if we violated their constitutional rights and ignored the law. However, we decided as a country not to do that to our people.
Worrell’s suspension was announced on a Wednesday morning. Hundreds of clients and attorneys were at the courthouse waiting for cases to be called when the announcement came down. At that point everything stopped. Criminal cases couldn’t be heard until the assistant state attorneys were sworn in by DeSantis’ new state attorney, Andrew Bain. Bain was in Tallahassee for the announcement, and everyone had to wait until he drove back from Tallahassee to swear in the assistants. People had taken off work, arranged child care, reorganized their day to be in court that morning and nothing happened. There were notes on the courtroom doors telling everyone to come back at 1:30 p.m. for court, hoping the assistant state attorneys would be sworn in by then.
Instead of defendants having to be present in court for the morning only, they now had to take the entire day off work, extend child care and rearrange their entire day. The dysfunction was not limited to that day. Instead, the dysfunction compounded, grew and avalanched into a pervasive sense of outrage and chaos in our local criminal courts and legal system. Multiple assistant state attorneys have been fired, cases have been transferred around and everything feels very uncertain. Victims cannot get answers as to what is happening with their cases and they fear that they will be forgotten. Some defendants who were slated to participate in a diversion program, where the charges would be dropped after completing classes and community service hours, are now ousted and have to figure out another option. Attorneys are trying to find out which state attorney is now on their case and what is going to happen.
DeSantis did not do anything to increase public trust, but instead created upheaval in Worrell’s office, fired attorneys who cared deeply about their community and undermined the power of a state attorney chosen by the voters. The governor deeply disrespected and disenfranchised the people of this district — its residents, voters and legal professionals — all because the vast majority of our county did not vote for a candidate politically aligned with him. Out of political spite, DeSantis chose to deprive voters in three counties and two judicial circuits of their electoral power.
People are angry and have been left feeling like their vote does not count. When the governor removed a duly elected, constitutional officer such as Monique Worrell, it was a travesty to the democratic process. In suspending Worrell, DeSantis sent a clear message that he believes he knows what is best for the citizens of Orange and Osceola counties and that the will of the people does not matter. His actions are offensive for those who have fought for the right to vote and a slap in the face for those who chose to elect Worrell.
Before her suspension, Worrell had filed to run for reelection in the Ninth Judicial Circuit and, especially now, she is not backing down. The election will be in 2024 and at this point it looks like she will be successful. If she “misbehaves” does she get suspended again? Or will the governor try to block the will of the voters and not even allow her to take office? These are the questions our community is asking each other. These are not the questions that democratic citizens should be asking each other. I’m a citizen, a voter, an attorney and a candidate for public office in Florida — and this scares me.
Melissa Vickers is a board certified criminal trial attorney and candidate for public defender of the Ninth Judicial Circuit of Florida. As an attorney for over 24 years, she previously worked at the Public Defender’s Office and is currently in private practice.