By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
An unruly family court case that Florida Supreme Court Justice Renatha Francis shed right before she got her promotion last year went to a new Palm Beach Circuit judge who seems to be copying Francis’ controversial moves.
Judge Darren Shull was a criminal defense lawyer until Gov. Ron DeSantis named him to the Palm Beach Circuit Court 10 months ago.
Now the family division overseer, Shull was nominated by a commission that included Phillip Fender, a marketing pro and Francis’ husband. (Fender, 60, died on Nov. 27.)
Recently Angela Bentrim, a self-representing party in the family court case, asked the Florida Supreme Court to investigate and give her a different judge.
Bentrim claims Shull, like Francis, is so biased against her, he “predetermined” decisions favoring her ex-husband “without permitting evidence” from her side, Bentrim’s part-time counsel Margherita Downey wrote in a Feb. 7 motion.
Two days later the high court denied the motion and all of Bentrim’s requested relief in a one-sentence order that provides no reason. Her case remains on Shull’s docket.
‘I’M IN SHOCK’
Had the justices decided to take action, their new colleague Francis might have felt obliged to recuse herself because Bentrim filed an ethics complaint against her with the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC). The complaint was rejected.
“I’m in shock, absolute shock. I cannot believe the system,” Bentrim told Florida Bulldog last week. When Shull took over her case, “I was so hopeful with him, I thought it was gonna go back to the way it was supposed to be,” she said.
Over the course of her 14-year post-divorce court battle, “I had good judges, good magistrates. They followed the law. Then Shull did the same things that Francis did,” Bentrim said. Angela and Jeffrey Bentrim divorced in 2009 after 12 years of marriage.
Angela Bentrim said her ex-husband owes her at least $35,000 by terms of their marital settlement that sets $1,750 monthly alimony payments. Jeffrey Bentrim owns a decorative fountain company in West Palm Beach; she has a dog-walking business in Loxahatchee. The younger of their two children will turn 18 in July.
“No comment,” said Robert M. Lewis, the Jupiter lawyer who represents Jeffrey Bentrim.
Also like Francis, Shull used a method of informing Bentrim about hearings, orders and other actions that he had to know was ineffective, Downey wrote in her Feb. 7 motion. Effective notice of legal acts is basic due process, meaning fair treatment.
For instance, a Feb. 15 Shull order denying Bentrim’s motion to disqualify him for bias states it would be sent to her “via e-service only” to this address: email@example.com But that’s not Bentrim’s email address, and a test email from Florida Bulldog bounced back with a message saying the domain “couldn’t be found or is unable to receive mail.”
FRANCIS WORKS AT FOURTH DCA
Downey alleges in her Feb. 7 motion that the Fourth District Court of Appeal judges who refused her many attempts to remove Francis and now Shull from Bentrim’s case are “abusing their judicial power to protect colleagues and a political agenda.”
In her motion Downey described FrancIs, Shull and the district court judges as “joining forces to muzzle [Bentrim].”
FrancIs and the Fourth District judges do at least work in close proximity—they’re down-the-hall neighbors.
In addition to her chambers in Tallahassee, FrancIs keeps an office at the Fourth District courthouse on Tamarind Avenue; a guard confirmed she was there on Thursday. A direct phone line to her West Palm Beach chambers has the same area code and prefix as the Fourth District’s main number.
WARNER SLAMS FRANCIS IN DISSENT
Judges who handled the Bentrim case before it got to Francis seemed far more sympathetic to the ex-wife’s situation. Several of them issued contempt rulings against Jeffrey Bentrim for violations of the couple’s settlement agreement.
For example, General Magistrate Damary Stokes found that threatening Jeffrey Bentrim with jail for nonpayment of alimony had been “a motivating factor” in previous court fights. Palm Beach Circuit Judge Bradley Harper agreed and issued a contempt ruling against him in April 2020 that set total past-due alimony at $9,215.
On Francis’ watch the Fourth District ruled against Angela Bentrim five times. She won once, when the court overturned Francis’ $1,200 sanction and contempt order against her.
Only one appellate jurist, former Chief Judge Martha Warner, clearly supported any of Angela Bentrim’s claims. The issue was whether Jeffrey Bentrim could change the terms of the couple’s settlement agreement without first going to mediation.
Francis ruled that he could and a Fourth District panel upheld her order 2-1. Judges Jonathan Gerber and Spencer Levine dismissed Angela Bentrim’s petition “for lack of irreparable harm” and because, as they read the settlement, it “did not provide that failure to mediate would result in dismissal” of the type of petition Jeffrey Bentrim had filed.
Warner dissented, saying Francis had “departed from the essential requirements of law by making findings of fact without any evidence to support them.”
“The harm [of Francis’ 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 July 1, 2021 dissent. “The record also shows that the former husband has been sanctioned and had a prior petition dismissed because of his failure to mediate.”
FRANCIS DROPS BENTRIM CASE
Angela Bentrim continued making trouble for Francis right up until her ascension to the Supreme Court on Sept. 1.
Florida Bulldog first reported on June 16 about Bentrim’s JQC complaint against Francis. Subsequent stories identified four more complaints.
Yet Francis wrote “no” on her Supreme Court application in her answer to this question: “Has a complaint about you ever been made to the Judicial Qualifications Commission?” She certified that she answered all questions “truthfully, fully and completely.”
In July Francis abruptly dropped the Bentrim case “sua sponte,” or on her own motion, on an “emergency” basis. There was no apparent emergency, but by then Francis was the odds-on favorite for a Supreme Court appointment.
Francis apparently reacted to a pending Bentrim petition asking Francis’ future Supreme Court colleagues to intervene in her case. With Francis off the case, the justices could easily duck the politically fraught matter.
On Aug. 5 DeSantis named Francis to the court a second time. He first appointed her in 2020 but was foiled by a lawsuit that successfully challenged her credentials. This time the appointment stuck.
Patti Lynn / February 26, 2023 11:57 am
So, when Police band together to protect their own, we have ,”The This Blue Line.” What do we call it when those in the legal profession do it, “Raising the Bar??? This is disgusting!
Edward Crespo / February 26, 2023 2:02 pm
NOTHING about the Angela Bentrim “nightmare” surprises me in the least, especially concerning the 4th DCA! Regrettably, it seems that NO ONE wearing a black robe plays by the rules anymore…not the circuit court…not the appellate court…not the Florida Supreme Court…and DEFINITELY not the corrupt JQC and its Executive Director, Blan Teagle. I speak from YEARS of personal experience!
What the hell happened to our “system of justice?” Since WHEN did it become OK for judges to willfully DISREGARD the mandates of the Fla. Rules of Judicial Administration? WHY do so many prejudiced, corrupt judges think it’s “no big deal” to breach the Canons of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct with such impunity? HOW is it NOT a problem when judges willfully depart from “The Essential Requirements of Law” in their rulings? Here’s a quintessential example of judicial prejudice and misconduct in its most DAMAGING form – when it results in VIOLATIONS of a party’s Constitutional Rights of Due Process of Law and Access to the Courts! I’m referring to 17th Judicial Circuit Court Judges, John B. Bowman and Chief Judge, Jack Tuter in Broward County. If any two judges ever deserved to be REMOVED from the bench and DISBARRED, it’s those two!!! But they’re not worried about anything they do because they KNOW that their COHORTS in the Florida JQC will PROTECT them from any disciplinary consequences by summarily DISMISSING any valid, well-supported JQC Complaints filed against them!!! (Great Emphasis Added). And WHY does the JQC do that? Because they CAN!!! They answer to NO ONE – not even the Supremes! They are a world unto themselves. “Absolute Power Corrupting Absolutely!”
Ironically, Canon 3D(1) of The Florida Code of Judicial Conduct states: “A judge who receives information or has ACTUAL KNOWLEDGE that a substantial likelihood exists that another judge has committed a violation of this Code, SHALL take appropriate action.” Yeah – right! Is anyone out there so foolish and naive as to think that ever actually happens?!?! Rest assured – it DOESN’T!
Fla. R. Jud. Admin. 2.330(l) states that if a judge fails to deny a Motion to Disqualify within 30 days of service, the Motion is deemed GRANTED and the judge shall order the Clerk of Courts to assign the case to a different division. Judge Bowman failed to deny my motion for 34 days after service, thereby triggering his MANDATORY DISQUALIFICATION from the case! Even now, he STILL refuses to disqualify himself in blatant violation Rule 2.330(l). I filed for a Writ of Prohibition against Bowman in the 4th DCA. Pursuant to the requirements of the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration, the 4th DCA should have GRANTED my Petition and removed Judge Bowman from the case. Instead, they DENIED it without issuing an opinion!
Currently, I have three JQC Complaints pending against the 3-judge panel who illegally DENIED my Petition – CORY CIKLIN, SPENCER LEVINE and ALAN O’ FORST. I fully expect my Complaints will be summarily dismissed…as usual. Every one of these prejudiced, corrupt judges have BETRAYED the public trust and breached their Oath of Office. But as long as the JQC is allowed to continue to operate WITHOUT any oversight or regulatory control, this egregious situation will remain! Sad!!!
The Black Robe Code of Silence? / February 26, 2023 9:56 pm
WOW! Great Article BULLDOG! Thank you for informing us. Interesting that a woman Judge, Martha Warner, was the only judge who took a stand for Justice which means doing the “right” thing. I guess the two men judges GERBER and LEVINE forgot what Justice means – who are they? Judge Warner honors the law and she should be on the Supreme Court NOT Renata Francis!
So if the Police have a “Blue Code of silence” to protect bad cops, Judges who cover-up bad judges must have “The Black Robe Code of silence”? Our Governor DeSantis appointed these elitist Judges who ignore the Law — birds of a feather! We must organize and vote them out. The people & Ms. Bentim deserve better.
True colors of Evil Gov DeSantis / February 27, 2023 7:44 am
Thanks for true news stories Reporter Marcus and Bulldog … Gov DeSantis appointed “Broward’s Killer Sheriff” a murderer. And now we learn in this story Gov appointed 2 “playbook” judges who don’t follow the Law – 1 a criminal defense lawyer raised up to a judge. Yikes! Criminals view this judge as good credentials. Only 1 fourth district appeals judge is fair and honest — maybe this 1 good apple in the Barrel will wake up the other Motley Crew of characters.
An Injustice Cabal Eroding Trust / February 27, 2023 9:38 am
TY to the journalist for sharing the acts of Injustice by our so called JUSTICE system. This conduct by JUDGES is disgusting. The most disapponting is Governor DeSantis was warned repeatedly about Judge Francis meritless record. Yet he promoted her nort based on merit but his personal preference.
“Service” to a bounced back email ? / February 27, 2023 10:58 am
This is unbelievable! How can this be called a justice system ? This is corruption not justice! Service to a bounced back email ? That isn’t service .
How can we fix this broken system ?
Thank you Bulldog for this information and HONEST reporting . Too bad some of the others in this article aren’t HONEST too!
Elisa Quintero / February 28, 2023 3:24 pm
While in the process of hiring a family attorney a year ago, he looked at me and said quote,” first l want you to know that there is NO JUSTICE”. What he said to me still dances in my head.
Mike Mader / March 2, 2023 9:19 am
Reading this story — I am appauled at what is going on in the Florida Courts! Thanks for the Article.
Efren Pulido / March 2, 2023 10:15 am
Thank you for reporting the dark side of Palm Beach family court. My niece had the same two judges as this poor Mother, Angela. I wiped my nieces tears and heard horrors about these two Judge co-workers.
Why aren’t the other Reporters and Newspapers reporting thes anti-family Judges? This is big news that a now Justice is anti-best interest of the children and has a “playbook” for other judges. This destroys families!! Unbelievable; just unbelievable.
One good judge ... / March 3, 2023 4:47 pm
Bravo to district Judge Martha Warner for honoring the Law. We have one good district Judge to applaud. Upholding what is right is an old school attribute sorely needed today.
Jennie Thomas - Thankful Reader / March 6, 2023 8:43 am
THANK YOU Bulldog — the Article unveils unjust “judges” helped my friend immensely. She too is a victim of judges who do not honor the Law and Constitution. Your journalist OPENED the Court’s closed doors. If you go to this Courthouse, the people’s house, they will not let you come inside OUR Court. Hopefully, this News may inspire more Whistle blowers to come forward with more evidence on these over-paid, under-worked elite judges. Keep up the good work !
Bella - Question for Reader Crespo / March 6, 2023 10:56 am
MR. EDWARD CRESPO – I read you long COMMENT on the Judges. Would you kindly EMAIL ME? Bellaavila246@gmail.com. I have a question. Thanks.