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Former chief justice, state rep blast system that teed up Renatha Francis for Florida Supreme Court

Renatha Francis
Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead and Palm Beach Circuit Judge Renatha Francis

By Noreen Marcus,FloridaBulldog.org

A former Florida Supreme Court chief justice and a state legislator are calling for an end to governors dictating who joins the state’s highest court based on politics instead of excellence.

Retired Justice Harry Lee Anstead’s July 17 opinion piece in the Tallahassee Democrat targets the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC), which, in theory at least, screens Supreme Court applicants and sends the governor a short list for a final cut.

With six names in hand, Gov. Ron DeSantis is about to replace retiring Justice Alan Lawson. His expected choice is Palm Beach Circuit Judge Renatha Francis, 45, who would be the court’s first Jamaican-American justice.

In his article Anstead criticizes the fact that the governor names all nine members of the JNC and argues the process should be changed to include input from the Florida Bar and non-lawyers – the way it used to work.

renatha francis
Gov. Ron DeSantis

He also hints at controversy over Francis’s fitness for the job. Anstead describes how DeSantis chose her once before, two years ago, when she hadn’t been a lawyer long enough to qualify for the court.

“Only public outrage and the intervention of the Florida Supreme Court prevented embarrassment,” Anstead wrote, adding, “At least temporarily.” He declined to elaborate.

THOMPSON: REFORM JNC NOW

Last week Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, whose 2020 lawsuit forced DeSantis to drop his attempt to appoint the conservative Francis, accused the JNC of shirking its duty twice in connection with the judge.

“The JNC has now recommended Francis as a candidate … even though had the JNC conducted a cursory review of the statements in her Supreme Court application regarding reversals by higher courts, the commissioners would know she was reversed numerous times,” Thompson said in a statement.

“The issue regarding the composition of the JNC, which has come to be perceived as a tool of the Governor, was not considered in 2020 and needs to be addressed now,” she said.

renatha francis
State Rep. Geraldine Thompson

Thompson previously disclosed to Florida Bulldog that Francis was the subject of three ethics complaints to the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC). Since then, at least two more have surfaced.

Still, Francis responded “no” to the question on her Supreme Court application about whether she’s ever been named in a JQC complaint. The closest anyone has come to defending her apparent deception was JNC chair Fred Karlinsky theorizing that perhaps Francis was unaware of the complaints.

Karlinsky did not respond to requests for comment on Anstead’s article and Thompson’s statement.

BUSH DOOMED MERIT SELECTION

DeSantis has used his power over JNC and Supreme Court appointments to turn both bodies into reflections of the far-right Federalist Society. Much like the U.S. Supreme Court, Florida’s highest court reverses long-standing precedents – notably in death penalty cases – that conflict with its conservative agenda.

After he replaces Lawson, a Gov. Rick Scott appointee who joined the court in 2017, DeSantis will have named a majority of the seven justices. The only remaining moderate is Justice Jorge Labarga, usually the dissenter in 6-1 decisions.

Former Governor Jeb Bush Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Gage Skidmore

At one time, Anstead wrote, the JNC operated independently and effectively, largely due to the fact that the governor chose only three of its nine members. The Florida Bar chose another three and then the six commissioners chose the remaining three, all of them non-lawyers.

Those dynamics started to change in the early 2000s, when Gov. Jeb Bush pushed through legislation that let governors pick a majority of commissioners. Eventually the governor was empowered to select all nine.

“It was the beginning of the end for merit selection,” according to Anstead, who served on the Supreme Court at the time. He retired in 2009.

FLORIDIANS ‘THE REAL LOSERS’

“As a result we are right back to a system where the governor, and partisan politics, control the entire process,” Anstead wrote. The system had shifted away from cronyism in the 1970s after three justices resigned in a corruption scandal.

“The current JNC gives us a false sense of security,” said Bennett Brummer, who was Miami-Dade County Public Defender for 30 years. “It was intended to promote confidence in our judiciary, reduce partisanship and enhance the moral authority of the courts.

“Instead of improving the quality of judges through broad-based consensus and fairness, the JNC now serves only to allow partisans and special interests to control the judiciary,” Brummer said.

“The real losers in all this are the people of Florida,” said Damien Filer, spokesman for Progress Florida. The left-leaning nonprofit has pushed for constitutional changes to the JNC process and until recently supported a bill to diversify JNC membership – a bill that dies swiftly every session of the Republican-controlled Legislature.

“This bill has never gotten a single hearing. There is zero appetite in this Legislature for in any way diluting their own power, and if we’re gonna be honest, that’s what this is about,” Filer said.

RENATHA FRANCIS CLOSE TO JNC, GOP

Calls for JNC reform are about as common as tropical storms over the Caribbean. But the timing of Anstead’s and Thompson’s comments is noteworthy, given the prospect of DeSantis picking Francis again.

Even before the JNC screening process began in May, the governor informed the justices that Francis will be joining them, according to an inside source. And Francis, a family court judge in West Palm Beach, was spotted claiming a choice parking place in the underground garage at the Tallahassee courthouse.

Francis has close ties to some current members of the JNC and they all share allegiance to the Federalist Society, a longtime DeSantis mentor. The JNC chair when Francis was nominated in 2020 was Daniel Nordby, a partner in Shutts & Bowen, where Francis worked briefly before Scott selected her for Miami-Dade County Court.

Nordby, a Federalist Society leader, is still on the JNC. The current chair, Karlinsky, is a partner in the Greenberg Traurig law firm and a GOP-connected lobbyist.

In that role, Karlinsky represented Twenty Labs, the maker of a COVID-19 contact-tracing app that won a $6.7 million no-bid deal with the state – even after DeSantis called contact tracing “ineffective,” Florida Bulldog reported. Twenty Labs’ CEO is the son of hedge fund billionaire Nelson Peltz, a prominent Republican donor.

PETITION GETS SHOOED AWAY

While Renatha Francis’ Federalist Society network helped her rise quickly as a judge, her performance in family court has drawn many negative reviews. One persistent claim is that she goes out of her way to treat pro se parties – nonlawyers who represent themselves – with contempt.

A part-time lawyer for Angela Bentrim, one of the pro se parties who filed a JQC complaint against Francis, petitioned the Supreme Court on June 23 to remove her from the Bentrim case due to bias. Francis allegedly violated Bentrim’s due process rights by failing to notify her about upcoming hearings and a trial.

Twelve days later Francis dropped the Bentrim case on her own. She labeled her recusal an “emergency” order although she was responding to a seventh motion seeking the same result, one that was filed on May 25.

Francis’ move gave the justices a chance to avoid the awkwardness of assessing someone they may have to work with. Since she had already stepped down, the court could have dismissed the Bentrim petition as moot.

But instead of acting on a document marked “Judge Renatha Francis,” the justices booted the petition to Francis’ supervisor, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach, on July 15.

The petition is already gone; Bentrim withdrew it four days later. And the justices never touched this piping hot potato.

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Latest comments

  • I still don’t understand how a judge, ANY judge, who’s barely out of the Young Lawyers Division, can already be up for appointment to the highest court in the state! It’s RIDICULOUS! And speaking from LOTS of personal experience, she’s NOT the only judge in the neighborhood who treats pro se litigants like second-class citizens! In the 17th Judicial Circuit, so far, there are EIGHT prejudiced, corrupt judges whose history now includes being disqualified by a pro se litigant…ME! Judges DESPISE pro se litigants in general, but especially if that pro se litigant is the Plaintiff…like ME! And Fred Karlinsky’s “theory” about Judge Francis’ supposed ignorance of the three JQC Complaints filed against her…IS A LOAD OF CRAP!!! Every judge I’ve ever filed a JQC Complaint against knew about it almost IMMEDIATELY after the Complaint was filed. Blan Teagle, the equally prejudiced and corrupt Executive Director of the JQC, sees to it that the judges are informed of the Complaints! There is NO other possible explanation for some of the subtle comments made to me during litigation by several of the judges I complained about which “suggested” they KNEW about my Complaints. Not surprising, When those EIGHT now-disqualified judges were dealing me…THE RULE BOOK WENT RIGHT OUT THE WINDOW!!!! I’m referring to the Canons of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct…which I have diligently studied along with the Rules of Civil Procedure and the Bar Rules Governing Lawyer Conduct. I know ALL TOO WELL how THIS game is played!

  • Elect Charlie Crist on Nov 8.

  • Thank you Bulldog and Reporter Noreen Marcus for pointing out Jeb Bush’s destructive change to the family “fairness” doctrine in selecting JUDGES ! It seems crooked to allow one party to determine who is allowed to our justice system . No wonder why judge Francis doesn’t care about right or wrong or JUSTICE !! This is corruption ! How can we the people let this happen ? We need to go back to inception to avoid the arrogance of a judge who knows she’s “in like Flynn”because she knows she didn’t need to earn her promotion with the GOVERNOR’S JQC . Is this the new normal of AMERICA ? It’s frightening that judge Francis -a proven LIAR and not qualified COULD BE sitting on our Supreme Court with the people who JUDGE others ! Are ALL JUSTICES as unethical or did they reach the high court based on knowledge or hard work ? It makes you wonder about the Justice’s ethics ? This is disgraceful and destroys the reputation of FLORIDA and further drags down the U.S. Can’t we impeach this judge for lying ? We CANT GIVE this judge more power and she should be removed NOT elavated to the SUPREME COURT !

  • How can a JUDGE remain on the BENCH after LYING on her State Application which is a CRIME? Is there any Florida Citizen who wants to be judged in Court by a JUDGE who has a mindset to lie and cheat to get a promotion? Will such a person take bribes too? In the past, weren’t Supreme Court Judges exposed and fired for taking bribes? Is this person REALLY the Governor’s choice?
    THANKS to BULLDOG for letting Florida residents know about the character of a state JUDGE, who is accused of committing a CRIME which appears to be ignored? Is this the new normal? PLEASE KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK in exposing the double standard!

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