Federalist Society members abound among new crop of nominees for Florida Supreme Court

By: - January 23, 2020 4:45 pm

The Florida Supreme Court. Photo by Colin Hackley.

A screening committee nominated nine candidates for two vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday. Every one is affiliated with the Federalist Society. Three have Hispanic roots. Four are men. Five are women. Only one is African American.

The candidates, selected by a judicial nominating commission for the state’s highest court, have now cleared their first hurdle. Gov. Ron DeSantis may elevate them or send the commission back to try again.

The governor himself is affiliated with the Federalists – or, formally, the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a conservative-libertarian organization that promotes as an “originalist” or “textualist” approach to jurisprudence. In practice, that means members tend to oppose economic regulation, affirmative action, and marriage equality and to support states’ rights an expansive reading of presidential power.

DeSantis has already cemented conservative control of the court – which embraced textualism only last week. Now he gets to replace two of his earlier appointees – Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, recently elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. No sitting member of the state court is black.

Federalists increasingly are dominating the judicial nominating commissions, too. The chairman of the high court search committee, for example, is Federalist Daniel Nordby, a partner at the Shutts & Bowen law firm. (Two of the new nominees have links to the firm.) At least one of the appointees must live within the 3rd District Court of Appeal, covering Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, to preserve the Supreme Court’s jurisdictional balance.

The following short profiles of the nominees draw upon their written applications for the court and other resources.

John Couriel, 41, is a litigator at Kobre & Kim, working in the Miami and Buenos Aires offices, where he specializes in international litigation and investigations, including work involving the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and civil racketeering claims. Previously, he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami, where he participated in prosecutions of wire and health care fraud and oversaw extraditions. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 2003. Earlier in his career, he worked as an associate attorney at Davis, Polk & Wardwell.

Couriel was an unsuccessful Republican candidate in 2016 for the Florida House and in 2012 for the Florida Senate. He applied for appointment last year to the U.S. District Court in Miami and was nominated in 2018 for a seat on the Florida Supreme Court. He’s been a member of the Federalist Society since 2000. He is a first-generation Cuban American, his parents having arrived separately in 1961. (His father was among 14,000 Cuban children air lifted into South Florida during Operation Pedro Pan.) Couriel disclosed a little more than $4 million in net worth.

Renatha Francis, 42, is a circuit court judge in the family and probate division in West Palm Beach; earlier, she served as a county court and circuit court judge in Miami-Dade. She listed her ethnicity as black.

Francis is a 2010 graduate of Florida Coastal Law School who opened her career as a law clerk and staff attorney at the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. She worked for several months in 2017 as counsel to Shutts & Bowen. While there, she defended insurance companies against class actions. Francis has belonged to Federalist Society chapters in Tallahassee, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach County since 2015. She disclosed her net worth as about $65,000.

She wrote: “Statutory textualism best preserves our republican form of government by deferring law-making responsibility to the democratically accountable branches of government, and thwarting potential end-runs on the democratic process caused by judges who try to make law from the bench.”

John Gerber, 51, has been a judge on the 4th District Court of Appeal since 2009. Before that, he served for about five years as a circuit judge in Palm Beach County and two years as a county judge.

He holds a bachelor degree in politics from Princeton and a J.D. from the University of Florida College of Law. While in college, he interned with U.S. Rep. Connie Mack and worked for the U.S. House Republican Research Committee and Randy ‘Duke” Cunningham’s first campaign for Congress in 1990. (Cunningham, a Republican, would later be convicted on felony bribery charges.) Following law school, he worked for eight years at Shutts & Bowen, making partner in 2001. He joined the Federalist Society in 2011 and was among the commission’s nominees for the Florida Supreme Court in 2018. Gerber disclosed a net worth approaching $940,000 and listed his ethnicity as white.

Gerber noted that his paternal grandfather was from a Jewish family in Poland who came to the United States in 1919 and that his maternal grandfather was the son of a rabbi in South Carolina – and that both became attorneys.

“My goal as a Justice on the Florida Supreme Court would be the same as it has been during my entire legal career – to serve with reverence for the law and loyalty to its principles,” he wrote.

Jamie Grosshans, 41, sits on the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach. She earned her law degree at the University of Mississippi School of Law and spent most of her career in the Orlando office of the Plant Street Law firm, practicing family law, but served an early-career stint as an assistant state attorney in Orlando and was an intern in the U.S. attorney’s office in Oxford, Miss. She became an Orange County Court judge in 2017 and joined the 5th District the next year. She last applied for a Florida Supreme Court vacancy in 2018.

She recently found out she’d been born in Florida, although she’d been raised as an adoptee in Mississippi. She disclosed a net worth of around $370,000 and listed her ethnicity as white. She served as an officer in the Orlando chapter of the Federalist Society between 2015 and 2017.

Of her judicial philosophy, Grosshans wrote: “It is those judges with the humility to recognize their proper, limited role in our government who preserve the rule of law.”

The Florida Phoenix profiled Norma Lindsey, 54, last month. To summarize, she has served on the 3rd DCA since June 2017. Before that, she was a trial judge at the county and circuit court levels. Lindsey was one of three founders in 1991 of the University of Miami School of Law chapter of the Federalist Society and served as president of the South Florida lawyers’ chapter between 1996 and 1998. She also belongs to the Cuban American Bar Association and the Association of Women Lawyers, and was affiliated with the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women’s Lawyers Association. She disclosed her ethnicity as white. Here’s a link to her application.

Timothy Osterhaus, 51, serves on the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. He holds a 1997 law degree from the University of Virginia. He practiced in Washington, D.C., before returning to Florida, where he’d lived as a child, to become assistant general counsel to the state Department of Education. He later became a deputy and then solicitor general in the state attorney general’s office, moving to the 1st DCA in 2013.

Osterhaus has served on the leadership committee of the Federalist Society’s Tallahassee chapter. He has volunteered at a Mexican group home for dislocated kids, a prisoner-rights project in Haiti, and with Legal Aid in Washington. He listed his ethnicity as white and net worth as of late 2018 as around $808,000.

“Complete commitment to the rule of law – and to applying the text of the Florida and U.S. constitutions of statutes at face value – is critically important to preserving liberty and public confidence in our system,” he wrote.

Eliott Pedrosa, 44, is U.S. executive director of the Inter-American Development bank, which finances projects in Latin America and the Caribbean, and is associated with Trump administration policy toward the region (he holds a top-secret security clearance). Earlier, Pedrosa led the Miami litigation department for Greenberg Traurig and worked in the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division.

Pedrosa’s written application reveals that, in spring 2000, he was among the volunteers working to prevent the federal government from sending Elian Gonzalez home to his father in Cuba (his own parents are exiles from that country). He’s belonged to the Federalist Society since 1999, as has served in a leadership position in the Miami chapter. He is a 1999 graduate of Harvard Law School. This marks his first try for a judgeship. Pedrosa disclosed a net worth or $4.5 million and listed his ethnicity as Hispanic.

“What I bring with me is an open mind, an inquisitive spirit, and a set of intellectual tools forged in respect for the rule of law and sharpened over a challenging career of investigation, advocacy, and deliberation,” he wrote.

Lori Rowe, 49, sits on the 1st District Court of Appeal. She is an Air Force brat who holds a joint J.D. and MBA from the Florida State University colleges of Law and Business, completed in 1997. Her professional background mostly involved state government positions including as deputy assistant attorney general and deputy chief of staff to Gov. Charlie Crist. She did spend three years in private practice, beginning in 2000. She joined the 1st DCA in 2009 and is scheduled to become its chief judge in 2021. She joined the Federalist Society’s Tallahassee chapter in 2016.

She put her net worth at $463,000 and described her ethnicity as white.

“My service in the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, and the court have provided me with a profound appreciation for the separation of powers and the proper role of the judiciary,” Rowe wrote. “Those experiences deepened my understanding of the need for appropriate respect and collaboration among the branches to ensure the proper function of government and adherence to the rule of law.”

Meredith Sasso, 36, sits on the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach. She earned both her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida (the latter in 2008). Sasso spent her early career as a litigator in private practice but joined Gov. Rick Scott’s staff as an assistant and then deputy general counsel. She is a first-generation Cuban-American on her father’s side. On her mother’s side, she traces her ancestry to the American Revolution.

Sasso listed memberships in the Federalist Society and American Enterprise Institute Leadership Network. She put her net worth at around $513,000.

“Judicial officers should be mindful of their duty – to never substitute will for judgment – and stand in humility in their limited role,” she wrote.

“However, judicial officers must also have the requisite independent spirit, understanding that the judiciary is not superior or inferior to any other branch of government, but that the Constitution is superior to them all. Because, as conveyed in Federalist 78, without an independent judiciary that calls out acts contrary to the law, a constitutional form of government is rendered ineffective.”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.