Here in Marion County, Indiana, incumbent Prosecutor Ryan Mears has generated Republican criticism for making it clear he will deploy the resources of his office to target serious crime–and that his definition of serious crime doesn’t include smoking a joint or having an abortion. He sees his job as an important part of public safety efforts to protect citizens against crimes like rape, robbery and murder.
Mears is hardly the only prosecutor taking that position. Prosecutors have limited resources, and determining the most effective use of those resources in combatting crime is actually a critical part of the job description.
Right now, a battle taking place in Florida between Governor Ron DeSantis and Prosecutor Andrew Warren is illuminating what happens when an ambitious and autocratic governor pretends not to understand that responsibility.
When Florida’s Republican governor fired the Tampa area’s top prosecutor for defying the state’s transgender and abortion crackdown, Ron DeSantis made it clear that he believes his power as governor supersedes the power of voters.
But now that prosecutor, Andrew Warren, is suing to get his job back, and the twice-elected state attorney tells The Daily Beast this is more than a fight over his employment; it’s about whether a strongman governor can single-handedly toss a democratically elected local official out of office.
Politicians like DeSantis and (clumsier and closer to home, Todd Rokita) have tied themselves to the MAGA/ White Christian Nationalist crusade–since his election, DeSantis has moved to “ban certain books in schools, halt transgender health care for young people, isolate and bully gay kids, and target transgender athletes in schools.”
Warren makes an important point: if DeSantis can overturn the will of the voters who chose him as prosecutor, what would prevent him from targeting elected school board members who choose to ignore his book bans and crackdowns on gay and transgender kids?
“There’s so much more at stake than my job. This is a fight to stop the erosion of our democracy. It’s to ensure our democracy has meaning, so we have elected officials and not a king, so no governor can steal the people’s vote and silence their voice. Regardless of what party you belong to, your vote matters,” Warren said.
This particular battle started shortly after the Supreme Court stripped women of abortion rights in June, when Warren and other elected prosecutors across the country sought to temper widespread fears about misogynistic crackdowns. Warren signed a joint statement vowing to not “criminalize reproductive health decisions.” DeSantis, seething over what he called a “woke” resistance, announced with much fanfare on Aug. 4 that he was suspending the Hillsborough County state attorney. The executive order accused Warren of “eroding the rule of law” and “encouraging lawlessness.” Warren sued two weeks later in federal court.
So far, the judge in the case has consistently ruled against DeSantis on preliminary matters. He issued an order rejecting the governor’s legal theory, which requires a finding that that public employees’ on-the-job statements aren’t protected by the First Amendment, and also requires a determination that an elected prosecutor is an “employee” of the governor who can be subjected to discipline by that governor/employer.
The judge has made a correct and important distinction between elected officials, and appointed agency employees. DeSantis has the legal authority to target the latter category, no matter how vindictively—as he did to the Health Department researcher who was pressured to resign when she wouldn’t fake COVID-19 data to make Florida look good.
He has no such power over officials who were voted into office.
The lawsuit in Florida and the criticisms being leveled against the numerous prosecutors who have taken positions similar to those taken by Warren and Mears should operate to focus more attention on down-ballot elections. We The People get to choose our local officials, and those officials aren’t beholden to state-wide officeholders–they are accountable to the law and to us. It behooves us to investigate their positions, priorities and prior performance, and vote accordingly.
Here in Marion County, Indiana, we are fortunate enough to have an incumbent prosecutor who is forthright about where he stands, and candid about the ways in which he intends to deploy the limited resources of his office. For my part, I agree entirely with his priorities and approve of the way in which he has run the office. People who disagree should vote for his opponent. No matter who wins, however, that individual will be accountable to us, the voters–not to the governor and not to Indiana’s current (embarrassing) Attorney General.
They, too, are accountable to We The People.