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What Justice Francis brings to court: unusual backstory, support for DeSantis’s agenda

justice francis
justice francis
Gov. Ron DeSantis announcing Palm Beach Circuit Judge Renatha Francis’s appointment to the Florida Supreme Court on Aug. 5, 2022

By Noreen Marcus,FloridaBulldog.org

After Florida Supreme Court Justice Renatha Francis is sworn in today, she’s expected to blend into the court’s conservative clique as she embarks on what could become a three-decade career.

Francis, 45, will have common ground with five of six other justices who collectively pronounce the final word on state law from Florida’s most powerful court.

Like her role model U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Francis will probably sign onto opinions others write until she masters arcane statutes and rules, finds her voice, and starts writing opinions of her own.

With a degree from a subpar law school, five years as an appeals court staff lawyer and five years as a trial judge, Francis doesn’t have the credentials of a typical Supreme Court justice.

“I think it is fair to say that we have never had a pick quite like her,” said law professor Robert Jarvis of Nova Southeastern University in Davie.

MAN IN HER COURT WAS ‘PETRIFIED’

The first time Gov. Ron DeSantis chose Francis for the court, in 2020, justices who are now her colleagues forced him to select someone else because Francis didn’t meet the basic requirement of 10 years as a licensed attorney. Finally, DeSantis tapped Justice Jamie Grosshans, a conservative from the Fifth District Court of Appeal and a lawyer for 14 years at the time.

Since then, multiple complaints against Francis have raised questions about her temperament and fitness as a West Palm Beach family court judge.

George Wade’s ethics complaint against Francis reads like several others that were filed by pro se, or self-represented, parties. The Lantana resident has a longstanding harassment claim against a neighbor; Francis granted a restraining order in January 2021.

Wade said the neighbor violated the restraining order, so he asked Francis to extend it and issue a contempt finding. A state prosecutor pursued a parallel criminal case, and Palm Beach County Judge April Bristow signed a no-contact order on Aug. 19.

justice francis
Outgoing Justice Alan Lawson

Francis, however, had refused to even consider Wade’s evidence, he said. At a March 21, 2021 hearing where he appeared with a victim’s advocate and the neighbor brought a lawyer, “I was treated like a second-class citizen,” Wade’s Aug. 1 complaint to the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) states. “She [Francis] got impatient, became increasingly aggressive, as if I should be punished for not paying for a lawyer to appear,” the complaint says.

At a Feb. 1, 2022 hearing, Francis’s bailiff threatened Wade with arrest for insisting the judge hear his evidence, he wrote, “leaving me petrified and sick to my stomach.” His JQC complaint is pending.

DESANTIS LIKENS FRANCIS TO HAMILTON

DeSantis wasn’t deterred by Francis’s inexperience. And he’s never acknowledged any complaints against her or her failure to answer truthfully when asked about those complaints on her Supreme Court application.

The way DeSantis describes Francis, a native of Jamaica: her judging style reflects an iconic Founding Father in a way that serves the governor’s purposes and politics.

“Her understanding of the Constitution reminds me of another famous Caribbean-American, Alexander Hamilton,” he said in 2020. “Hamilton articulated what Judge Francis deeply understands, that the judiciary lacks authority to indulge its legislative preferences.”

The Florida Supreme Court defers to DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature by rubber-stamping conservative laws that the governor and his base support and legislators enact. Simultaneously, the court is scrubbing its liberal legacy, scrapping precedents that hinder a hard-right agenda.

This radical transformation moved Justice Jorge Labarga, the court’s lone moderate and frequent dissenter, to protest that his colleagues “have ushered in a series of drastic changes in civil, criminal and rulemaking contexts.”

JUSTICE CHANNELS FEDERALIST SOCIETY

Francis has few written opinions to display her judicial philosophy. But based on her public statements and alliances, she should blend easily into a court where, as a general rule, individual rights are deemphasized.

They won’t have a champion in Francis. “The job of a justice is not to try to rescue people from the consequences of their decisions,” she told the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) at her June 11 interview.

According to Francis, the job is all about honoring “the limited role that judges play.”

James Uthmeier

That limited role is sacrosanct to the Federalist Society, the conservative/libertarian powerbroker that guides DeSantis’s judicial choices. The governor belonged to its chapter at Harvard Law School; his chief of staff and general counsel James Uthmeier is a member.

Uthmeier “directs the [Florida] judicial nominations process,” his biography on the society’s website says. He did not respond to emailed requests for comment about Francis from Florida Bulldog.

SOURCE: DESANTIS WANTED FRANCIS’S VOTE

Scholars draw a straight line from originalism, the legal theory employed by Federalist Society judges, to the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s June 24 opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson, which reversed Roe, is originalism in its starkest form. Since the 18th century framers didn’t foresee a constitutional right to abortion, Alito wrote, no such right exists today.

According to a Florida Supreme Court source, DeSantis told the justices he intended to promote Francis, a strong voice for originalism, before she even applied for this year’s opening.

One reason he gave, the source said, is that Francis, a devout Christian, would be a more reliable anti-abortion vote than Alan Lawson, the justice she replaces as of today. Lawson was passed over for chief justice and forced out to make room for Francis, according to this source.

Early in her career Francis was an active member of the Federalist Society’s professional chapter in Tallahassee. Her alma mater, the now-defunct Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, had a student chapter.

FRANCIS’S BUSINESS BACKGROUND

Her ties to Federalist Society leaders such as Daniel Nordby, a JNC member and former chair, seemed to propel Francis’s rise up the judicial ranks. She worked briefly at Nordby’s law firm, Shutts & Bowen, before then-Gov. Rick Scott tapped her for Miami-Dade County Court, her first stop as a judge, in August 2017.

Looking past her thin legal resume, DeSantis and other Francis supporters stress her business background and humble beginnings in Jamaica.

“I stand before you the epitome of the American dream,” Francis declared when DeSantis introduced her on Aug. 5 as his choice to replace Lawson.

“She’s had other careers before she got into law,” the governor noted. “It’s a good thing to take someone that came from a different background rather than someone that was born into a legal family.”

“She brings a broader perspective to the bench, life experience to understand where people are coming from and to empathize with them,” Samantha Parchment, president of the Jamaican-American Bar Association, said in a phone interview.

The application of Francis to be a justice on the Supreme Court lists her pre-law activities: five years as a self-employed businesswoman in Jamaica, two years there as a recruiter for a company that launches outsourcing services, and two years as co-manager of a Cache women’s wear store in Atlanta.

A HISTORIAN’S TAKE ON EXPERIENCE

Are Francis’s business and life experiences better predictors of her value to the Supreme Court than the quality of her education and judicial track record?

Not according to historian Neil Skene.

“When looking for the best candidate for any job, you are looking for indicators of exceptional accomplishment and potential. You want the highest probability of success, by whatever measure you define success,” he said in an email.

“For example: Do their education and past positions show they have succeeded in challenging environments in terms of intelligence, decision-making and overall performance?” Skene asked.

He was unfamiliar with Francis’s biography but knew about her law school, Florida Coastal. Francis got her J.D. in 2010. Funding and accreditation troubles forced the for-profit school to stop accepting new students a year ago.

Skene, who has a law degree, was a mock trial coach at Florida State University in Tallahassee from 2003 to 2014. He said students would ask for his opinion of various law schools.

THE FLORIDA COASTAL FACTOR

 “I consistently urged them against Coastal,” Skene said. “Its accreditation seemed tenuous, as events later proved, which spoke to its quality and to its value to future employers as a credential on a resume.

“I don’t know why Renatha Francis went there,” he said, “but it is a factor that other parts of her resume really need to overcome.”

Francis answered Skene’s question at her JNC interview: She chose Florida Coastal because she needed financial help and the school made her an offer.

“The schools you attended can reflect various factors, including financial aid packages, and can even be a first step in overcoming a difficult past,” Skene said.

“But Coastal is really a low bar. Going there suggests a certain desperation in terms of grades and LSAT [law school admission test] score and an absence of better options,” he said.

In 2024, when DeSantis may run for president, Francis will have to run to keep her seat on the court. Few justices face serious retention challenges and the attempts always fail.

So Francis can count on job security for a very long time. Her mandatory retirement age is 75.

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  • JUSTICE FRANCIS – YOU LIED on your Supreme Court Application – a MISDEMEANOR! Hmm a criminal Justice? QUITE IMPRESSIVE mam.
    BAD GIRL, BAD GIRL – what you gonna do? What you gonna do WHEN they come for YOU? OH WE get it. YOU ARE ABOVE THE LAW, right?

  • Thank you so much Noreen.

    My hope is that others will come forward, and do as I did, file a complaint, and there will be 0 doubt this person is an EXTREME danger to the Bench, and a complete insult to the Justices, selected before her. Not to forget, the 5, more experienced judges, on the same list, she was on before her, appointment.

    There should be, NO DOUBT, the audio recordings of both hearing you mentioned, “Should” have an impact to the committee. It is her own words and actions. NOT hearsay. I literally, BEGGED her to listen, in tears.

    Long and short of it. She was completely terrify, when all I was doing was trying to be protected, from the nearly, 8 years of constant harassment. One I am thankful, that the State attorney, who filed 3 cases, for violation, of the same injunction SHE granted, using, each and every bit of evidence and, and of Course, a Judge,( Bristow), for filing a Criminal No contact order, thus doing the only thing Miss Francis denied me, Twice.

    All I can do now, is hope that 1). Others also come forward, and add to my complaint, and 2). the Committee, listen to the audio, and remove her from the bench, before she destroys someone’s life, or even worse, is responsible, for their demise, all, by believing, she can do what ever she choose, with no regard for the laws themselves.

    Finally, had I known, I could have filed a complaint, I would have done so, on February 2nd. That being the day after, she left me in tears, and literally vomiting, as soon as I left the Court room.

    Shame on YOU Ron, you lost my Vote.

    George Wade

    Thanks again Noreen, we need more people like you, an for all of you out there, who may have experienced, half of what I did, PLEASE come forward, and put an end to this, before it cost someone there life.

  • Florida Bulldog chewing on Francis like a big ‘ole bone. Jurists based on Federalism is one of the few hopes this country has on redeeming itself.

  • De Santis not being re-elected in Nov will be a step in the right direction. That way he can run for prez full time.

  • OMG, two years at Cache, appoint her! DeSatan is always picking from the bottom of the barrel. Broward Cty. Sheriff Tony is a perfect example.

  • GOOD RIDDANCE JUDGE !!!
    Miami people disliked her so DeSantis moved her to West Palm Beach where she made a MESS. What is she going to do in the Supreme Court? SCARY that this Francis will be a justice for decades !! What can WE do?
    I sympathize with this George Wade being treated like a second class citizen In court . I also saw this judge treat attorneys differently and the Pro Se people like second class citizens. Hopefully some of these people will come out and report their treatment .
    Great job Governor DeSantis !
    You JUST lost my vote too.

  • TO DAVE MANNING Commentor – Gov DeSantis appointed a Player, a CHAMELEON! The definition is “One who changes their opinion or behavior according to the situation.” Judge Frances denied my friend a Constitutional right to Jury trial! Then she held a trial on the Plaintiff’s case and refused to hear my friend’s side of the case!! What Judge/Justice in the entire U.S.A. has a Trial on only ONE SIDE of the case denying DUE PROCESS to the other person? A real ‘Federalist’ member doesn’t deny people their Constitutional rights, a disgrace to every conservative Patriot. Judge Frances’s RECORD shows she has no respect for the Constitution or the Law, Mr. Manning. DeSantis LOST my VOTE!

  • It is frightening that the governor chose someone who is so obviously unqualified for this important job. Attendance at a mail-order, for profit, now-defunct law school. Barely 10 years out. Poor ratings and reviews as a judge. But she strictly adheres to the Federalist Society’s mantra. That is her only qualification. This is why I can no longer vote for any Republican, no matter the office.

  • Judge Francis:
    Make us proud! However you got there, you are there already, and most likely, you will be there for a very long time. Whatever you are accused of, by the “ haters” will not deter you from doing what’s right and just. So “sidung” in your seat and make us proud.

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