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Supreme Court aspirant Francis keeps mum about messy judicial ethics complaint against her

renatha francis
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Judge Renatha Francis at her interview Saturday with the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission Photo: The Florida Channel

By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org

Judge Renatha Francis’s interview for the Florida Supreme Court was a weird mixture of lovefest, attack on her chief foe and preemptive defense of her fitness to serve on the state’s highest tribunal.

To no one’s surprise, Francis’s name was on the list of six recommended candidates the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) sent Gov. Ron DeSantis Monday. He’ll make his appointment soon.

On Saturday, JNC members warmly received and fiercely defended the Palm Beach Circuit family court judge. Francis and more than a dozen other candidates sat for close inspection by the commission last week in Tampa.

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Gov. Ron DeSantis

But the JNC plays only an advisory role. DeSantis is said to have already made up his mind about Francis replacing Justice Alan Lawson when he retires on Aug. 31.

She will likely be elevated to the Supreme Court despite the contents of a confidential ethics complaint obtained by Florida Bulldog.

FRANCIS WOULD SHED LINGERING CASE

Bentrim vs. Bentrim, the post-divorce case that generated the complaint, remains stalled in Francis’s court. A separate commission that oversees judges quietly dismissed the complaint against her in April.

Francis’s office has postponed the next scheduled hearing in the Bentrim case until September – by then, presumably, it will be another judge’s problem and she’ll be settling into her Supreme Court chambers.

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Angela Bentrim

The case dates to 2009 when the couple divorced after a 12-year marriage. Angela Bentrim walks and boards dogs and lives in Loxahatchee; Jeffrey Bentrim owns a decorative fountain company in West Palm Beach. They have two children, one a minor.

Before this matter got to Francis, it passed through the courtrooms of several judges and general magistrates who treated with empathy the party Francis seems to disfavor, the ex-wife.

“When I appear in her court, it’s like watching a judge burn our flag,” said Margherita Downey, the Delray Beach lawyer who counsels Angela Bentrim in the protracted fight over, mainly, money.

OTHER JUDGES FAULTED EX-HUSBAND

One of the dozen jurists who handled the case before Francis got it, General Magistrate Damary Stokes, wrote that she could not grant Angela Bentrim’s request to threaten Jeffrey Bentrim with jail before he withheld alimony payments because that’s not legal. 

Still, she agreed the prospect of spending time behind bars is “a motivating factor” that has tended to make him pay what he owes, she wrote.

Palm Beach Circuit Judge Bradley Harper approved Stokes’s recommendations in an April 22, 2020 order that set the total of past-due alimony at $9,215. Lifetime alimony for Angela Bentrim is $1,750 a month.

Harper issued one of several contempt rulings by various judges against Jeffrey Bentrim for repeated violations of the couple’s marital settlement agreement.

That trend ended when Francis was assigned the case after her transfer from Miami-Dade County Court in 2020.

PANUCCIO REVISITS OLD BATTLE

DeSantis wanted to put Francis on the Supreme Court in 2020, but the court forced him to pick someone else because she lacked the requisite 10 years as a licensed attorney.

That was then. Last Saturday, JNC member Jesse Panuccio, a former lawyer for Republican Gov. Rick Scott who was later a high-ranking Justice Department official in the Trump administration, conducted the gratuitous attack portion of the Francis interview. 

Panuccio singled out for ridicule “elected officials,” meaning Rep. Geraldine Thompson, Democrat of Orlando.

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Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando

Thompson beat DeSantis in court in September 2020. Threatened with contempt, the governor had to drop Francis and promote his second choice, Fifth District Court of Appeal Judge Jamie Grosshans.

Thompson, who like Francis is black, had wanted DeSantis to pick one of a half-dozen other black candidates with significantly more experience. She accused him of using Francis to effect “racial tokenism.”

Last month Thompson told Florida Bulldog that Francis “remains the least qualified” of the group of seven African-American lawyers who applied in 2020. Francis is the only person of color on the list of six applicants that just went to DeSantis. 

JNC MEMBER ATTACKS ‘ELITISTS’

Panuccio fired back during the Francis interview. He referenced the thwarted attack on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to assert that this is “a dangerous time for judges.” From there he leapt to Thompson’s criticism of the Francis selection, though he never called out Thompson by name.

Jesse Panuccio at Saturday’s JNC meeting

Elected officials said “some very irresponsible things that dishonored their offices and dishonored the judiciary,” Panuccio said.

“I thought it was a disgrace, frankly, and I’m sorry that it happened.” He thanked Francis for quietly enduring the perceived slights.

Panuccio also slammed “elitists” and “credentialists” who think that unless one is a member of the University of Florida’s Blue Key honor society or has a Harvard degree, “you don’t fit in at the highest echelons of the profession.”

A partner in the Fort Lauderdale office of Boies Schiller Flexner, Panuccio has degrees from Duke University and Harvard Law School, according to his law firm’s website.

FRANCIS PRIZES ‘TIMELY DECISIONS’

Francis, who attended college in her native Jamaica, has a law degree from the low-ranked Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville.

Invited to explain why she chose Florida Coastal, Francis said she needed financial aid and the school offered her free tuition for a year, so she seized the opportunity.

“Look at the things that I have done with the resources that I have, at the time that I’ve done it,” she said. “I think it’s a testament to the tenacity that I have shown throughout my life and it’s a testament to the American spirit.”

JNC member Daniel Nordby asked Francis to talk about how she manages her case docket, her techniques “to give people timely decisions.”

She responded enthusiastically. “It’s very important to get these cases moving,” Francis said, “and not just have cases kind of lingering out there for a long period of time being unresolved.”

LOSSES IN ONE-SIDED APPEALS

Yet the case of Bentrim vs. Bentrim preceded her by a decade and looks like it will outlast her in Palm Beach Circuit family court.

Francis did not respond to an email from Florida Bulldog seeking comment.

Jeffrey Bentrim’s lawyer, Robert M. Lewis of Jupiter, said, “I’m not going to make any comment except in a professional manner through the court system.”

Robert M. Lewis

On Francis’s watch the Fourth District Court of Appeal has made six rulings in the Bentrim case, all based on filings by the ex-wife that were uncontested by the ex-husband. 

Angela Bentrim won only one of the six appeals. The court overturned Francis’s orders for contempt and a $1,200 sanction.

Of the other five that Angela Bentrim lost, three were attempts to get Francis removed from the case due to alleged bias, one was an appeal of Francis’s denying her a jury trial, and the fifth was about the ex-husband’s attempts to change the marital settlement agreement without mediation.

Senior Judge Martha Warner dissented to that last order, which favored Jeffrey Bentrim 2-1. Francis “departed from the essential requirements of law by making findings of fact without any evidence to support them,” she wrote.

EX-WIFE SAYS FRANCIS BLINDSIDED HER

“The harm [of the court’s order] is irreparable, because the former wife will be completely denied the opportunity to mediate the dispute, as required by the marital settlement agreement,” Warner wrote in her dissent to the July 1, 2021 order.

“The record also shows that the former husband has been sanctioned and had a prior petition dismissed because of his failure to mediate,” she wrote.

Angela Bentrim’s Nov. 20, 2021 JQC complaint against Francis indicates that time after time, the judge failed to make sure Bentrim knew about upcoming court hearings and other actions – then ruled against her.

The complaint reflects a court document written by lawyer Downey that summarized 28 instances since Aug. 3, 2021, in which Bentrim, who represents herself with Downey’s help, allegedly was denied due process of law.

Without properly notifying Bentrim, Francis turned down her request for a jury trial; held ex parte hearings with only Lewis, the ex-husband’s lawyer; granted the ex-husband’s motions for contempt and sanctions against the ex-wife, and denied the ex-wife’s motion to recuse and disqualify Francis, according to the document based on court records.

The document says the judge allowed Lewis to testify, in contradiction of professional rules and common sense.

‘ABSOLUTELY NOTHING IN MY BACKGROUND’

“I sincerely believe she [Francis] is retaliating against me for filing two petitions for prohibition,” Angela Bentrim wrote in her complaint, referring to her Fourth District appeals that challenged Francis for bias.

In a letter to Bentrim dated April 12, 2022, JQC executive director Blan Teagle wrote that its Investigative Panel “declined to take any further action” on her complaint.

Teagle wrote that he regretted being “unable to assist you in addressing your concerns.” JQC complaints that are dismissed without action remain confidential.

On Saturday, Judicial Nominating Commission chair Fred Karlinsky asked Francis the question he asked all the Supreme Court applicants: Is there anything concerning about your background?

“I’ve been vetted a lot and there’s absolutely nothing in my background,” Francis said. “I’m here to serve.”

Angela Bentrim disagreed. “She is not qualified to go to the Florida Supreme Court,” Bentrim said in an interview. “She hasn’t followed basic law throughout most of my case.”

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Latest comments

  • Panuccio should change his name to Pinocchio. He’s an elitist just like most of the member of the JNC. They do not want highly qualified Harvard, Yale, UF, FSU, Miami, or Stetson graduated lawyers as judges. Not generally anyway. They want judges that are in awe when they see a powerful firm and lawyers that graduated from those schools. Why? Because it does not bode well for large firms to lose to smaller firms. It’s bad for their business. A judge beholden to such a power scheme knows who is buttering their bread.

  • It appears that Attorney Panuccio pandered to “we the viewers” and the JNC at the JNC’s On-line “Interview” Hearing by attacking the Florida legislature as being “Elitist” because a Representative had the courage to take a Patriotic stand. Indeed, if he was attacking Rep. Geraldine Thompson, her 2020 Lawsuit stopped an unqualified Judge from being promoted to the Supreme Court and courageously called out the Governor on “racial tokenism”. Essentially WE THE PEOPLE of Florida dodged a bullet for two years thanks to Rep. Thompson; who is the true Patriot and heroine for the PEOPLE of FLORIDA. Giving a Judge one of the highest Judicial seats, who by the way Mr. Governor hasn’t been to a Federalist Club meeting in two years per the Club’s Leader, counterintuitive. It’s like blindly selecting a Manchurian Candidate and Anti-Constitutionalist for the highest seat; one who was raised under a “Monarchy”. If you want your Legacy to be a Patriot, you should appoint someone who is FAITHFUL to our Constitution, right? We’ll soon see if you reward people you favor or if you reward people based on “merit” Sir.

  • Thank you to the REPORTER who wrote REAL NEWS — and not the fake stuff we see all the time. IF the JUDGE LIED, Govenor DeSantis you should NOT reward her! What she did to this poor woman in Court that compelled her to file a Complaint must have been very painful. I wouldn’t want to appear before a JUDGE if she’s a political pawn. Thx again for the REAL news.

  • It is TERRIBLE what this judge has done to this poor mother !! We should all thank this reporter Noreen Marcus and Representative Geraldine Thompson for speaking out about this judge Francis and caring about JUSTICE.
    Does this judge deserve to be rewarded and sent to a higher court ?
    I’m sure there are other victims out there from this judge and maybe they’ll come forward . Yet our governor wants to promote her ! SHAME ON YOU !! Where is the justice?
    Good luck to this mom and her family.
    God bless you .

  • The JQC’s “confidentiality” requirement is one of several tactics they use to PROTECT dishonest, unethical, self-serving judges from the consequences of their actions. Acts of judicial prejudice and misconduct during litigation constitute violations of the Canons of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. LYING under oath to ANY question on her application to the Supreme Court of Florida, for ANY reason, is both egregious and unacceptable! Her application should be summarily rejected and sanctions should be imposed. Although they were elevated to the judiciary, judges are STILL lawyers and members of the Florida Bar who have taken an Oath of Admission which includes, among other things, NOT TO LIE in the performance of their duties as Officers of the Court! Her fraudulent misrepresentations on her application goes far beyond the mere “appearance of impropriety,” it IS totally improper and should NOT be tolerated! (Emphasis). As for Executive Director, Blan Teagle, I know exactly who he is! I have had personal communications with him several times regarding the summary dismissals of my valid, well-supported JQC Complaints WITHOUT even a cursory investigation into my allegations, all of which were confirmed by the record evidence. Blan Teagle is just as dishonest, unethical and corrupt as the judges he routinely “helps out.” I have his signed letters to me and ALWAYS he uses the same lame-ass excuse for dismissing the Complaint! The JQC judges rule the way he tells them to. When 17th Judicial Circuit Court Judge, Keathan B. Frink deliberately BLOCKED my constitutional right of self-representation to prevent me from pursuing full and fair Discovery, my JQC Complaint was summarily dismissed! This has happened over and over again! Renatha Francis should NOT be selected for the SC and Blan Teagle should be removed from the JQC and permanently disbarred!

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