By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Renatha Francis falsely certified on her application to join the Florida Supreme Court that she’s never been on the receiving end of an ethics complaint, a possible crime under Florida law.
Francis, a family court judge in West Palm Beach said to be Gov. Ron DeSantis’s favorite for the job, answered “No” when asked: “Has a complaint about you ever been made to the Judicial Qualifications Commission?” If so, the applicant must provide details to the JQC, a state agency that investigates allegations of judicial misconduct.
Francis signed the application which she submitted to the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, declaring she answered all questions “truthfully, fully and completely.”
In fact, at least one – and as many as three – JQC complaints have been filed against Francis. Florida Bulldog detailed one of those complaints, filed by Angela Bentrim of Loxahatchee, last week.
Making a “false official statement in writing with the intent to mislead a public servant in the performance of his or her official duty” is a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500 under Florida Statutes Section 837.06.
Francis did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
JQC LETTER ABOUT CASE
Francis’s Supreme Court application is dated May 18. Five weeks earlier, the JQC, the state’s judicial watchdog, sent a letter to Bentrim saying her ethics complaint against Francis had been “reconsidered” and rejected.
Investigators looked at Bentrim’s complaint twice and “declined to take any further action,” JQC executive director Blan Teagle wrote in the April 12 letter. She’s the ex-wife in an ongoing post-divorce case on Francis’s Palm Beach Circuit Court docket.
In response to emailed questions from Florida Bulldog, Teagle wrote that he could share only general information and nothing specific about the Francis complaint. The commission’s Investigative Panel reviews a complaint a second time when there’s a request for reconsideration, he said.
Teagle would not address whether a Supreme Court candidate should be disqualified for certifying a false statement in an application.
“The whole thing is a charade,” said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, in an interview with Florida Bulldog. “You don’t want a person who’s proven to be dishonest on the Florida Supreme Court.”
But “the crux of the matter,” Thompson said, is whether Francis knew about any complaints that had been filed against her. “Did they inform her?”
Under JQC rules, investigators must have informed her. The letter from Teagle to Bentrim indicates her complaint was reviewed twice. That cannot happen unless the judge who is the subject of a complaint is notified and offered an opportunity to respond.
Thompson has said she’s aware of two more ethics complaints against Francis.
At the end of Francis’s June 11 interview, Judicial Nominating Commission chair Fred Karlinsky asked her if there was anything concerning in her background.
“I’ve been vetted a lot and there’s absolutely nothing in my background,” Francis responded.
JNC DIDN’T ASK ABOUT FRANCIS COMPLAINT
The Judicial Nominating Commission’s job is to scrutinize Supreme Court candidates. Were its members aware of the JQC complaint/complaints against Francis? No one asked Francis about it during her June 11 broadcast interview, and her application was misleading.
Florida Bulldog asked Karlinsky, a partner in the Greenberg Traurig law firm, if he and the JNC were aware that a JQC complaint had been filed and whether that is concerning to him. He did not respond to requests for comment over two days.
Bentrim’s complaint accused Francis of violating her due process rights. She claimed the judge failed to properly notify her in advance about dozens of hearings and other procedural matters, then ruled against her at every turn.
Francis retaliated against Bentrim because she went to the Fourth District Court of Appeal and argued that Francis is biased against her, according to Bentrim. The higher court did not agree.
During the two years Francis has overseen the Bentrim litigation, which dates to 2009, Angela Bentrim has appealed a half-dozen times. She was the clear winner in only one of those appeals, none of which was contested by her ex-husband, Jeffrey Bentrim.
In a dissent to an order favoring Jeffrey Bentrim, senior appellate Judge Martha Warner criticized Francis for making factual findings without evidence to support them; also, for denying Angela Bentrim the right to mediate an issue even though the Bentrims’ marital settlement agreement requires mediation.
The Bentrim case must have been top of mind for Francis when she filled out her Supreme Court application because she put it on a list of cases where she was reversed on appeal. On March 9, the Fourth District reversed Francis’s sanction of Angela Bentrim and upheld Francis’s refusal to sanction Jeffrey Bentrim in a fight about confidential records.
DISPLAYING CONSERVATIVE CREDENTIALS
At her JNC interview in Tampa, Francis, 45, showed why she’s a perfect fit for a court with a far-right agenda. Like his predecessor Gov. Rick Scott, DeSantis has stacked the court with ardently conservative justices, some of them young enough to reshape Florida law for decades to come.
During her brief opening statement, Francis declared herself a believer in “textualism” and “originalism,” buzzwords for pledging her allegiance to conservative principles. Later she said she admires Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Ricky Polston, two prominent conservatives she hopes will soon be her colleagues.
And Francis indicated she takes a reformer’s approach to settled law, or precedent. If a previous court “got it right,” she said, the precedent must be followed. But if an earlier ruling is “clearly erroneous,” the Supreme Court is duty bound to “revisit” the issue, especially when it involves the Constitution.
Francis echoed a controversial opinion from January 2020, State vs. Poole, when the Supreme Court majority reversed a four-year-old precedent in a death penalty case. The majority accused the liberal 2016 court of ignoring “decades” of settled law by supporting jurors’ role in sentencing.
“Under these circumstances, it would be unreasonable for us not to recede from [the previous court’s] erroneous holdings,” the unsigned opinion says.
Justice Jorge Labarga dissented “in the strongest possible terms.” Labarga, the court’s lone remaining moderate, has sharply criticized his colleagues for disrespecting precedent in other cases as well.
FRANCIS’S LAW SCHOOL NOW DEFUNCT
One topic that came up during Francis’s JNC interview was her law school, Florida Coastal in Jacksonville. But the school’s recent history went unmentioned.
Francis graduated in 2010; she finished in the top third of her class, she wrote in her Supreme Court application. She said during the interview that she chose Florida Coastal because the school offered her free tuition her first year.
Since Francis’s time there, Florida Coastal has declined to the point where it’s best described as defunct. Though technically still accredited, the school stopped accepting new students a year ago.
The for-profit school struggled to meet federal fiscal responsibility standards. Florida Coastal “operated recklessly and irresponsibly, putting its students at financial risk rather than providing the opportunities they were seeking,” Richard Cordray of the U.S. Department of Education said in a May 2021 news release.
Florida Coastal was the last standing of three law schools in a consortium called The InfiLaw System. Before InfiLaw gave up its ownership of the Jacksonville school, it shuttered the Charlotte School of Law in North Carolina and Arizona Summit Law School in Phoenix.