After reshaping the Florida Supreme Court to reflect his legal and political ideology, Gov. Ron DeSantis is poised to pick a new justice who will give him four appointees on the state’s highest court.
DeSantis will choose from 17 applicants seeking to replace Justice Alan Lawson, who announced in April that he will retire from the bench on Aug. 31.
Since he took office less than four years ago, DeSantis’ appointments have secured a conservative shift on the seven-member court, following the mandatory retirements in 2019 of former Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince and R. Fred Lewis.
DeSantis appointed Justices Carlos Muniz, John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans, who joined Lawson, Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston to form a solid conservative majority on the court. Justice Jorge Labarga, who joined Pariente, Lewis and Quince on many major issues, is now often a lone dissenter.
Shortly after taking office, DeSantis also appointed Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa to the Supreme Court, but they were later tapped by former President Donald Trump to serve on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. DeSantis subsequently selected Couriel and Grosshans.
The appointments will leave DeSantis’ imprint on the Supreme Court for what could be decades.
The applicants to replace Lawson include Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Renatha Francis, whom DeSantis tried to appoint to the Supreme Court in 2020.
And the include Judge Meredith Sasso of the 5th District Court of Appeal, the district that includes Flagler County.
Sasso was Gov. Rick Scott’s Chief Deputy General Counsel, representing the governor in litigation before the Florida Supreme Court, the First District Court of Appeal, and state and federal trial courts, among other duties, according to her 5th District biography.
Judge Sasso graduated from the University of Florida in 2005 and got her J.D. from the University of Florida in 2008. DeSantis appointed her to the 5th District in 2019. She was retained in the 2020 election, with 71 percent of the vote. She is currently an appointed member of the Florida Bar Appellate Court Rules Committee. She is also a member of the American Enterprise Institute Leadership Network and the ultra-conservative Federalist Society, established in 1982 with with the intention of remaking the nation’s judiciary in its libertarian-conservative image. Its faculty advisors included Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, both of whom were nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court during the Reagan administration. The Senate confirmed Scalia in 1986 and rejected Bork in 1987.
The Federalist Society was originally financed by billionaires Richard Mellon Scaife, John M. Olin, and Charles Koch and David Koch. Its imprint has reshaped the U.S. Supreme Court–and, more recently, the Florida Supreme Court–giving “free market concepts” primacy in legal interpretations and resulting in one of the most activist courts in the branch’s history.
Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett are all Federalist Society alumni.
Other applicants to Florida’s Supreme Court vacancy are:
— Adam Tanenbaum and Thomas Winokur, judges on the 1st District Court of Appeal;
— Jeffrey Kuntz and Edward Artau, judges on the 4th District Court of Appeal;
— Eric Eisnaugle II, a judge on the 5th District Court of Appeal;
— Robert Long and Stephen Everett, judges on the 2nd Judicial Circuit;
— Steve Berlin, a judge on the 6th Judicial Circuit;
— Tarlika Nunez Navarro, a judge on the 9th Judicial Circuit;
— Hunter Carroll, a judge on the 12th Judicial Circuit;
— Anne-Leigh Gaylord Moe, a judge on the 13th Judicial Circuit;
— Cymonie Rowe, a judge on the 15th Judicial Circuit;
— Ariana Fajardo Orshan, a former judge on the 11th Judicial Circuit who also served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida;
— Jeffrey Albinson, a lawyer with the Golden Scaz Gagain firm;
— Denise Harle, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom organization.
Lawson, 61, who was appointed to the court by former Gov. Rick Scott, is stepping down from the court nearly 15 years ahead of reaching a mandatory retirement age for justices of 75.
Diversity on the court has become a closely watched issue, as it has lacked a Black justice since Quince’s retirement more than three years ago.
DeSantis is widely expected to tap Francis to succeed Lawson, after trying to put her on the Supreme Court in 2020.
The governor’s appointment of Francis, who would have been the Florida court’s first Jamaican-American justice, was embroiled in a racially charged legal and political battle.
Legal wrangling over Francis’ appointment began in July 2020, when state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, asked the Supreme Court to find that the Republican governor’s choice of Francis violated the state Constitution because Francis would not reach the 10-year Bar membership requirement for justices until Sept. 24, 2020.
DeSantis in May 2020 announced he was choosing Francis and Couriel to fill two Supreme Court openings, selecting them from a list of nine candidates submitted by the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission on Jan. 23.
Couriel immediately joined the Supreme Court, but DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate, said Francis would be sworn in as a justice after she reached the Bar requirement months later.
In a rebuke to DeSantis, however, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected his selection of Francis and ordered the governor to appoint another candidate from the list of nominees.
DeSantis’ appointment of Francis “has not complied with the Constitution’s clear commands” because she has not met a constitutional requirement that justices be members of The Florida Bar for 10 years, the Aug. 27, 2020, Supreme Court decision said.
Applicants for the vacancy to succeed Lawson had until 5 p.m. Friday to submit applications to the Judicial Nominating Commission. The panel, which will provide a list of nominees to DeSantis, is expected to interview potential candidates on June 11 in Tampa.
–FlaglerLive and Dara Kam, News Service of Florida