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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”