Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed Jamaican-American Palm Beach County family law judge Renatha Francis to the Florida Supreme Court, having failed in his first attempt to place her there two years ago.
He announced the appointment during a news conference Friday in West Palm Beach as Francis stood beside him accompanied by her mother, husband, and two small children. Francis would be the only Black person appointed to the court under DeSantis and the second Black woman to serve.
Peggy Quince, the first Black female justice, left the bench around the time DeSantis took office in 2019.
The governor named Francis for a high court vacancy in 2020 but the sitting justices refused to seat her because she hadn’t been a member of the Florida Bar for the constitutionally mandated 10 years at the time.
“We were happy to appoint, or try to appoint, Judge Francis two years ago in the state of Florida. But then, seeing how she’s progressed since then, she’s gotten even better. And she was really good on everything, you know?” the governor said.
“She understands what the proper role of a judge is in America’s constitutional system. And I also think, being an immigrant, she probably has more appreciation for our constitutional system than many people who can trace their lineage back hundreds of years.”
Francis described her judicial philosophy.
“The Florida Supreme Court protects people’s liberty. And inherent in the way that we do that in the judiciary is respecting and observing the limited role that judges play in our constitutional system of government. Alexander Hamilton explained what that meant. That we exercise neither force nor will but merely judgement. We apply the law as written,” she said.
“This timeless principle in a civil society not only promotes uniformity, predictability; it’s essential to preserving liberty. It restrains arbitrariness; it restrains abuses of power.”
The governor’s press office announced the event only two hours before it began at the Richard & Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum in West Palm Beach. Unusually for these events, it opened with a prayer. DeSantis and Francis left without taking questions.
That meant no one could ask about reporting by the Florida Bulldog, an investigative news website, that Francis on her Supreme Court application failed to report that she’d been the subject of ethics complaints, as she was required to do. The publication reported that as many as five had been lodged alleging she’d been unfair to litigants.
The announcement came one day after DeSantis suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren because he’d co-signed two letters with other prosecutors nationally promising to exercise discretion in charging crimes under state laws limiting abortion rights and access to transgender care.
Specifically, as the abortion-related letter put it, “prosecutors have a responsibility to refrain from using limited criminal legal system resources to criminalize personal medical decisions.” DeSantis took that as a pledge to ignore legitimately enacted laws.
On Friday, he compared what he considers activist courts to “rogue prosecutors” around the country who “basically say they are not going to enforce certain laws that they don’t like — that they put their personal conception of, quote, social justice over what the law and their constitutional oath require.”
What derailed Francis’ train to the Supreme Court two years ago was a lawsuit filed by state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Black Democrat from Orange County, whose complaint pointed out that Francis was a few months shy of the 10-year Bar membership requirement.
On Friday, DeSantis noted that Francis was late to enter the legal profession, having operated businesses including a trucking company before enrolling in the for-profit Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, which has stopped accepting students and is set to close next year.
Since then, she’s served as an attorney at the Florida First District Court of Appeal and as a judge on the Palm Beach Circuit Court and Miami-Dade county court.
“She’s had other careers before she got into law, and so I actually thought that was a good thing — to take someone that came from a different background rather than someone that was born into, like, a legal family,” DeSantis said.
On his earlier attempted appointment of a justice who didn’t quite qualify, “It was a disputed point of law” testing whether the governor could announce the appointment and let it take effect later, DeSantis said.
“The Florida Supreme Court disagreed and said once you’re selected off the list it’s that instant where you have to have had 10 years, therefore the appointment was defective,” he said.
“I thought it was disappointing. It was disappointing for Judge Francis to have to go through all that and then have this lawsuit come at the 11th hour just because someone didn’t want her on the court. I mean, it was all politics; it wasn’t anything that was based in principle.
“She handled it well, and so we have this other appointment,” he continued.
Thompson wondered in a written statement whether Francis would provide an independent voice on the court.
“Members of the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that Renatha Francis was not qualified to serve on the state’s highest court based on the constitution. They ruled that 10 means 10. These were the governor’s appointees who exercised their independence to rule based on the law,” Thompson said.
“Will Judge Francis be so beholden to the governor that she will fail to exercise her independence when issues such as the governor’s racially and politically gerrymandered redistricting maps, open gun carry, abortion, and other issues come before the Court? That’s the concern
now,” she said.
William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, which lobbies to limit access to the courts, praised the appointment in a written statement.
“The governor’s appointment of Renatha Francis as the 92nd Justice continues his mission of appointing justices with a proven record of recognizing the court’s proper role as the interpreter of our laws, not the author,” Large said.
“Justice Francis is also only the second African-American woman appointed to the Florida Supreme Court, and we further applaud Gov. DeSantis for his continuing commitment to a Court that can draw on a rich diversity of life experience.”
Next is for the governor’s office to submit an official commission to the court, court spokesman Paul Flemming said via email.
“As soon as the commission is confirmed Judge Francis can then have the oath of office administered and she will be a Justice. The timing for all of this is to be determined,” Flemming said.
“A ceremonial investiture is just that — it is a public recognition of the official acts that have already taken place. The time and manner of those events are to be determined as well,” he added.
DeSantis insisted that he considered each of the six finalists sent by the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. All had ties to the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy, which grooms attorneys for places in the conservative legal movement; DeSantis, also tied to the group, turns to it for appointees to the nominating commissions that vet potential judges, too.
“I said, you know what, she got it two years ago. But two years have elapsed and I’ve gotta go and do a thorough review of everybody, because there may have been people two years ago that have progressed a lot. And so, it wasn’t anything that she was entitled to just because she got it two years ago based on the facts and circumstances at the time,” DeSantis said.
“We ran all the nominees through a very good process. They had to talk about the law, their philosophy, and all these different things. I said, I’m going to do it from scratch. No preconceived notions and we’re going to go with the person that we think has done the best job.”
–Michael Moline, Florida Phoenix