By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
After a confusing court challenge, Renatha Francis will not be sworn in Sept. 24 as a justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
The Palm Beach Circuit Court judge is not yet qualified to serve on the court, five justices ruled on Aug. 27. They found that Gov. Ron DeSantis exceeded his authority by choosing Francis before she had the constitutionally required 10 years’ membership in the Florida Bar, but they declined to correct him immediately.
On Tuesday the justices followed up by announcing what they intend to do about DeSantis’s overreaching action.
The court issued what is called a show-cause order that basically directs DeSantis to pick another applicant from the list of recommended candidates he received early this year from a Judicial Nominating Commission. Out of the nine applicants on that list, he selected Francis and John Couriel, who has already joined the court.
Rep. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando) successfully challenged the Francis appointment, though she had to sacrifice her goal of achieving greater diversity on the state’s highest court. Thompson wanted the court to order the governor to choose from a larger pool of applicants including six qualified African-American attorneys. None of them made the short list that the Judicial Nominating Commission compiled for DeSantis.
The court found Thompson’s requested remedy unacceptable under established precedent. The justices all but sent her an invitation to seek their preferred remedy and her lawyers did exactly that on Friday.
Justice Carlos Muniz, a DeSantis appointee, wrote the Aug. 27 decision. Tuesday’s unanimous show-cause order was unsigned.
DeSantis’s lawyers argued that Thompson should not be allowed to amend her original petition to request the right remedy.
The justices disagreed. “[T]o the extent that Thompson’s petition implicates both a public right and the institutional integrity of this Court, allowing an amendment would serve the public interest. To deny Thompson’s request to amend in these circumstances would not be a proper exercise of our discretion,” the order states.
Joel Hirschhorn, a longtime litigator who has criticized the court for following a political agenda, said he saw no such bias in this outcome.
“The court was disturbed not by the politics of the situation, but by the impropriety of it, regardless of the political bent,” he said. “They care about the Supreme Court as an institution.”
Francis, 43, would have been the first Jamaican-American woman of color to serve on the Florida Supreme Court. She had solid support from prominent black attorneys and public officials, as well as from bar associations for women and minorities.
Her strong connection to the conservative Federalist Society was obviously an important factor in her selection. When DeSantis announced Francis’s appointment on May 26, he mentioned U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a role model among conservatives.
Thompson, who is also black, said Francis’s failure to meet a basic qualification had to outweigh the diversity she would bring to the court. “I believe a critical appointment such as this should be based on merit and not ideology,” Thompson said in a news release when she filed her petition in the Supreme Court.
In a separate opinion Aug. 27, Justice Jorge Labarga wrote that he lamented the missed opportunity to increase diversity on the court while also following the Florida Constitution by seating one of the six qualified black applicants.
Francis had a notably thin resume when she applied for promotion to the high court. She never tried a case as a lawyer or campaigned for election as a judge.
The bulk of her experience was six years at the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee as a staff attorney, a research and writing job.
Then she worked briefly on insurance defenseat Shutts & Bowen, where prominent Federalist Society member Daniel Nordby is a partner. As chair of the Judicial Nominating Commission that short-listed Francis for the Supreme Court, Nordby actively opposed Thompson’s challenge.
In 2017 Gov. Rick Scott named Francis to Miami-Dade County Court; two years later, after another promotion, DeSantis moved her from the circuit court in Miami-Dade to the one in Palm Beach County. Two months later Francis applied to the Supreme Court JNC led by Nordby.