By Noreen Marcus,FloridaBulldog.org
The lawyer for a woman who filed an ethics complaint against Judge Renatha Francis wants the Florida Supreme Court to order Francis off her case.
Delray Beach attorney Margherita Downey filed a petition Thursday asking the court to consider her claim that Francis, a West Palm Beach family court judge, has shown such extreme bias against Angela Bentrim that Bentrim fears she won’t be treated fairly in ongoing court battles with her ex-husband.
The petition carries unusual baggage: Gov. Ron DeSantis reportedly plans to place Francis, who is 45, on the same court that’s now being asked to yank a case from her docket.
Francis’s attempted climb to the Supreme Court – her second in two years – is controversial. State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, says she knows of three ethics complaints filed against Francis during her time as a trial court judge.
One is Bentrim’s. According to Thompson, another complaint was filed by Winter Park attorney Cheney Mason. She provided no details. Mason did not respond to Florida Bulldog requests for comment. The Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) deems complaints confidential unless it decides to file charges.
FRANCIS GOES UNDEFENDED
Yet on her Supreme Court application, Francis denied she’s ever been the subject of a JQC complaint.
And at her June 11 interview, she failed to mention any weaknesses in her background under questioning by Fred Karlinsky, chair of the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. The JNC is supposed to scrutinize high court candidates.
Karlinsky hasn’t gone public with a defense of Francis since the JNC included her on a short list of six candidates it sent DeSantis two weeks ago for his final selection. Karlinsky is a lobbyist and lawyer with the Greenberg Traurig law firm in Fort Lauderdale and Tallahassee.
After ducking multiple emails from Florida Bulldog over the past week, on Friday Karlinsky released this statement through law firm spokesperson Elaine Walker: “As I understand the process, it is not uncommon for most JQC complaints to be dispensed of [sic] without the judge ever being notified of their existence, which is why it may not come up in the application process.”
James Uthmeier, DeSantis’s general counsel and chief of staff, did not respond to an email from Florida Bulldog inquiring about his reaction to the Francis Supreme Court petition.
Uthmeier “directs the judicial nominations process,” says his biography on the website of the Federalist Society, an ultraconservative powerbroker known to influence DeSantis’s court choices.
PRAISE FROM EX-HUSBAND
Francis does have an enthusiastic defender in her ex-husband Jermaine Smith, the owner of a small trucking company in Decatur, GA. The two divorced 13 years ago while Francis was attending law school in Jacksonville. Both have remarried.
“It didn’t work out for us, but she never once did me wrong, not once. That’s character,” Smith said in an interview last week. Information about the divorce is redacted on Francis’s Supreme Court application.
“She’s just a good person,” Smith said. Francis has said she’s a devout Christian.
Smith described Francis as “a force,” a “driven” individual with a big heart. When an Atlanta homeless mission she supported ran out of supplies, he said, “she went into her own pocket to keep things going.”
His portrait of Francis would be unrecognizable to anyone who watched her June 11 JNC interview. “The job of a justice is not to try to rescue people from the consequences of their decisions,” she said.
PETITION REPURPOSES COMPLAINT
Angela Bentrim, who represents herself with Downey’s help, filed her JQC complaint against Francis last November. In an April 12 letter, JQC executive director Blan Teagle told Bentrim that investigators had rejected her complaint after reviewing and then reconsidering it.
The Supreme Court petition Downey just filed for Bentrim expands upon her complaint and makes the legal argument that Francis’s actions require her removal from the Bentrims’ post-divorce case.
They’ve been fighting over the terms of their marital settlement agreement – mostly the ex-wife’s lifetime alimony – since their 2009 divorce after 12 years of marriage and two children.
Downey refers in the petition to a list she compiled of 28 instances when Francis allegedly violated Bentrim’s due process rights. Over and over again, she failed to properly notify Bentrim about upcoming hearings and other court procedures.
Meanwhile, the petition suggests, Francis blatantly favored ex-husband Jeffrey Bentrim and his lawyer, Robert M. Lewis, by talking to Lewis one-on-one and accepting his statements as facts without letting Angela Bentrim have her say.
HARM TO EX-WIFE ‘IRREPARABLE’
Downey uses Senior Judge Martha Warner’s dissent in a related Fourth District Court of Appeal case to buttress her argument that Francis disfavors Angela Bentrim.
In that case, Warner criticized Francis for “making findings of fact without any evidence to support them.” The findings helped Jeffrey Bentrim avoid mediating a contract dispute, even though the marital settlement agreement requires mediation.
“The harm [to Angela Bentrim] is irreparable, because the former wife will be completely denied the opportunity to mediate the dispute,” Warner wrote in her dissent. She was outvoted 2-1 by Judges Jonathan Gerber and Spencer Levine.
Under Florida law and court rules, one reason for disqualifying a judge is that a party fears they “will not receive a fair trial or hearing because of specifically described prejudice or bias of the judge,” says a tutorial in the Florida Bar Journal.
“If the motion is legally sufficient, it must be granted immediately,” the article says. The test is whether the facts “would place a reasonably prudent person in fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.”
Downey asked Francis to disqualify herself from the Bentrim case. When she refused, Downey appealed to the Fourth District. On March 21 the appellate court denied Downey’s petition.
The Supreme Court doesn’t have to take the Francis case. Complaints like Bentrim’s are common in emotionally fraught divorce and child custody matters; the justices seldom review them and rarely grant the requested “extraordinary” relief.
DOWNEY’S OWN BACKSTORY
Given the political dynamics of this high-profile appeal sitting on the Supreme Court’s doorstep, Downey’s own credibility will probably be tested.
She’s a 25-year lawyer who previously was a state trooper for four years. Downey worked for the late celebrity lawyer F. Lee Bailey in West Palm Beach for two years and spent another two years as an assistant public defender.
Since 2002 Downey has focused on her family law practice and animal rights activism. In 2012 she ran for Palm Beach Circuit Court against Judge James Martz.
Downey challenged Martz because she didn’t like the way he treats litigants, especially women. “We need a change on the bench, and Judge Martz does not have the judicial demeanor for family court,” she said at the time.
Downey got 42 percent of the vote and Martz kept his seat.