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.
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.
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.
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.