By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Dodging embarrassment – or worse – Palm Beach Circuit Judge Renatha Francis has abruptly dropped a troublesome family court case she’s accused of botching.
Early Tuesday Francis, the frontrunner for an opening on the Florida Supreme Court, recused herself “sua sponte,” or independently, from the case of Bentrim vs. Bentrim.
She granted on an “emergency” basis Angela Bentrim’s seventh motion to remove Francis from presiding over a case she’s had for less than two years. The motion had been pending since May 25.
The only apparent emergency is the slight chance that Francis’s potential Supreme Court colleagues will scrutinize and give credence to Bentrim’s claims. Her allegations are explained in a petition to the court that her lawyer Margherita Downey filed on June 23.
“Judge Francis never e-filed an emergency order protecting the Bentrims’ minor child despite the mom’s emergency motions,” Downey said. “So much for protecting children versus protecting herself.”
Florida Bulldog reported June 26 that Bentrim had asked the Supreme Court to order Francis off her case because of judicial bias.
JUSTICES MAY CALL CASE ‘MOOT’
Bentrim, a mother of three and the ex-wife in litigation dating to 2009, also filed an ethics complaint against the judge. It’s one of several complaints naming Francis to the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) that have come to light.
Florida Bulldog reported last month that Francis lied on her application for a gubernatorial appointment to the state’s highest court when she falsely certified that she’d never had a complaint filed against her with the JQC.
The Supreme Court isn’t duty-bound to take up Downey’s petition claiming Francis repeatedly violated Bentrim’s rights and asking the court to either remove Francis from the case or order her to handle it correctly. According to the petition, Francis didn’t notify Bentrim about upcoming hearings, then held them, listened only to the ex-husband’s lawyer and accepted his uncontested statements as facts.
Now that Francis has stepped away from the case, the justices will likely say the matter is moot. They can quietly drop Bentrim’s petition, removing what they may see as an impediment to Francis’s smooth transition from West Palm Beach family court to the marbled rotunda in Tallahassee.
Francis is one of six nominees for Gov. Ron DeSantis’s consideration, but he reportedly told the justices he wants her to replace retiring Justice Alan Lawson. Francis, who would be the first Jamaican-American black female justice, is a conservative “originalist” like the governor’s previous picks.
DeSantis tapped Francis for the high court two years ago. Then he was forced to choose appellate judge Jamie Grosshans instead, as Francis hadn’t been a licensed lawyer for a full 10 years.
She crossed that threshold but her competence, fairness and honesty have been questioned in complaints to the JQC. The commission treats complaints against judges as confidential unless it decides to charge them with ethics violations.
ADDITIONAL FRANCIS COMPLAINTS
Asked in her May 18, 2022 Supreme Court application if she’s ever been the subject of a JQC complaint, Francis answered “No.”
Fred Karlinsky, chair of the separate nominating commission that put Francis’s name on the shortlist for DeSantis, said many JQC complaints are processed and cleared “without the judge ever being notified of their existence.”
He suggested Francis may not have known there were complaints against her and therefore answered the question truthfully. Under JQC rules, however, once complaints survive an initial screening for frivolous filings, the judges are notified and given an opportunity to respond.
Francis has not responded to numerous requests for comment from Florida Bulldog.
Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said she knew about three JQC complaints against Francis. She identified two of the filers as Bentrim and Winter Park lawyer Cheney Mason. Mason did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.
Recently Florida Bulldog learned of two other Francis complaints that Thompson wasn’t told about, bringing the total to five. One of the additional complaints could not be obtained but the filer, who contacted Florida Bulldog, is a party in an ongoing child custody case before Francis.
The other filer is Frederic Bouin, a Parisian art dealer who for many years has been battling his Palm Beach-based ex-wife over his relationship with their now-teenage son.
‘SHE’S JUST REALLY COLD’
“I have explained numerous times to Judge Francis that I am not an attorney, and having to represent myself, I may not always do it correctly or in proper form, but I always implore the judge to understand that I am fighting for my son,” Bouin wrote in his Oct. 28, 2021 JQC complaint.
“She never seems to care that I am doing this on my own or that a young boy is hurting. If you research/review any transcripts of the trial or hearings, you will see she completely lacks empathy and just shuts me down,” he wrote.
“To me she’s just really cold,” said Denisha Robinson, who is fighting the father of their two daughters over his paternity and her allegations of child abuse. Robinson also described Francis as “very dismissive and sarcastic,” adding that the judge once “threw a small tantrum” in court.
Robinson said she filed a JQC complaint and promised to share it with Florida Bulldog, but apparently changed her mind.
Although Francis’s promotion to the Supreme Court would mean Robinson gets a new judge, she said she hopes that doesn’t happen.
“She’s harmful as a family court judge,” Robinson said. “I don’t see how making her a justice would be beneficial to anyone.”