By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Palm Beach Circuit Court Judge Renatha Francis has already been seen checking out the Florida Supreme Court’s underground parking garage by St. Augustine Street; she let it be known she wants a coveted spot near the elevator to the justices’ chambers.
Space in the exclusive, heavily fortified garage won’t be available until Aug. 31, when Justice Alan Lawson retires. But Francis can count on getting what she wants, according to a court insider who communicated with Florida Bulldog on condition of anonymity because the Lawson succession plan is top secret.
“There is talk here that [Gov. Ron] DeSantis told the justices he is going to name Judge Renatha Francis to replace Justice Lawson because now she meets the qualifications,” the insider said.
That is, she fulfilled the minimum requirement of practicing law for at least 10 years. Francis was licensed in September 2010.
Replacing Lawson with Francis, who is 45, would be an extraordinary move in several respects. She would be the first black Jamaican-American to join the court—a good optic for the swing voters DeSantis hopes to attract this election year.
When DeSantis replaces Lawson he’ll have a four-justice majority of his own appointees on the seven-member court. Much like the governor himself, his preferred jurists have been shaped by the Federalist Society, an arch-conservative legal influencer and kingmaker.
GOVERNOR JUMPS THE GUN AGAIN
DeSantis selected Francis, an active Federalist Society member, two years ago. Then the Supreme Court told him to pick someone else, saying he overstepped his bounds by trying to promote to its ranks a lawyer who hadn’t quite reached the 10-year mark.
Now DeSantis will get another chance.
The governor is supposed to wait for an independent judicial vetting process to run its course and produce a short list of recommended candidates. The Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) sought applicants on May 11. Its role is to then conduct interviews and present three top contenders.
The governor may reject them all and consider three more names. But JNC rules do not contemplate the chief executive tagging the winning candidate before the commission even puts out a call for applications.
Yet DeSantis may well have done exactly that if he has informed the justices that Francis will replace Lawson.
LATEST MOVE IS ‘SO DESANTIS’
“It’s a sham,” said former Miami-Dade Public Defender Bennett Brummer. “This is more evidence of the politicizing of the judicial branch that’s making people regard the courts as a mere extension of a fiercely partisan executive like DeSantis.
“The same is true at the U.S. Supreme Court level, with Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate,” Brummer said. “Destroying our constitutional separation of powers attacks the structure that keeps us free.”
University of Miami law professor Michael Froomkin said he wasn’t surprised to hear from Florida Bulldog that DeSantis already made up his mind about his next Supreme Court appointment.
“It just seemed so DeSantis,” he explained in an email.
In 2020 DeSantis reacted defiantly when State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, sued him for choosing Francis instead of a more experienced black applicant. The Supreme Court agreed with Thompson that putting Francis on the court would violate the state Constitution’s 10-year rule.
DeSantis responded by holding a press conference in Miramar, which has a large Caribbean population. Surrounded by local black leaders, he called Thompson’s lawsuit “an insult to the Jamaican-American community,” the Tampa Bay Times reported.
FRANCIS TOUTED FOR FEDERAL BENCH
Eventually the governor backed down. He announced in September 2020 that he was appointing Judge Jamie Grosshans of the Fifth District Court of Appeal to replace Justice Robert Luck, who went to the federal appeals court in Atlanta.
At the same time, DeSantis announced that then-President Donald Trump was “receptive” to the idea of nominating Francis for a federal judgeship. It never happened.
DeSantis’s office did not respond to questions from Florida Bulldog. Neither did Francis. Court spokesman Paul Flemming wrote, “If Chief Justice [Charles] Canady has a comment, I will convey it to you.” No comment followed.
Francis would bring atypical credentials to the state’s most powerful court. While Justice John Couriel, her fellow appointee in 2020, graduated from Harvard’s college and law school, Francis would be the first justice from the low-ranked but expensive Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville.
Courlel had been an assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted complex federal cases. In contrast Francis spent six years, the bulk of her pre-judicial career, as a staff attorney supporting the work of judges on the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.
THIN CREDENTIALS BUT FEDERALIST TIES
But what Francis lacks in training and experience, she must make up for –- at least in DeSantis’s mind – with her Federalist Society pedigree and connections.
For several months before Gov. Rick Scott appointed her to the Miami-Dade County Court trial bench in 2017, Francis worked in Shutts & Bowen’s Miami office as an insurance defense lawyer. Shutts partner Daniel Nordby, a Federalist Society leader in Tallahassee, still chairs the Supreme Court JNC like he did in 2020, when the commission sent Francis’s name to DeSantis.
At the time, Florida Family Policy Council president John Stemberger used a Federalist Society buzzword to praise Francis in a blog. He called her “a ‘textualist’ in the tradition of Clarence Thomas.”
Textualists such as U.S. Supreme Court Justices Thomas and Samuel Alito take a strict, literal approach to interpreting the law. They do not recognize the right to privacy, for example, because the word “privacy” doesn’t appear in the U.S. Constitution.
Last week Rep. Thompson said in an interview that Francis, a family and probate trial court judge, “remains the least qualified” of the seven African-American lawyers who applied to the Supreme Court JNC in 2020.
THOMPSON STILL SCORNS FRANCIS
Five of the other six are judges; they have from 11 to 26 more years practicing law than Francis. None, however, has any apparent ties to the Federalist Society.
In the two years since Francis’s Supreme Court detour, “she’s gotten a little bit more experience, but she’s also gotten a number of complaints with the Judicial Qualifications Commission,” Thompson said.
She said she saw three complaints—all confidential unless and until the JQC finds probable cause to file ethics charges. The JQC reviews complaints against state judges and makes disciplinary recommendations, but the Florida Supreme Court is the final arbiter.
No complaint against Francis has surfaced publicly, so she has not been formally accused of any misbehavior. Asked about Thompson’s allegation in an email, Francis did not respond.
Last week Thompson repeated what she said in 2020: DeSantis has better options for making the all-white Supreme Court more diverse without sacrificing excellence.
“The governor has yet another opportunity to appoint a highly qualified African-American to the Florida Supreme Court from among those who applied in 2020,” Thompson said, “and I hope he will seek quality in this appointment.”