Gov. DeSantis picks a female attorney and judge — and a working mom — for a seat on the FL Supreme Court

By: - September 14, 2020 7:38 pm

A new female justice on the Florida Supreme Court: Jamie Grosshans, who formerly sat on the 5th District Court of Appeal. Credit: Screenshot, Florida Channel

Gov. Ron DeSantis, denied his first choice for an open seat on the Florida Supreme Court by the justices themselves, on Monday named Central Florida appellate judge Jamie Grosshans as the fifth woman to sit on the state’s highest court.

Grosshans has been serving on the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach. As the Florida Phoenix reported in January, she earned her law degree at the University of Mississippi School of Law and spent most of her career practicing family law in Orlando.

The high court has been all-male, and Grosshans becomes the lone female Supreme Court justice.

DeSantis described her as a working mother who’s been active in organizations for women lawyers and that provide free legal services to the poor.

“I think Judge Grosshans will be an inspiration to a lot of working moms out there, he said during a news conference in the Florida Capitol.

Grosshans herself gave a shout-out to conservative Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court, quoting him to this effect:

“The Constitution tasks the political branches, not the judiciary, with developing the law that governs our society. The court’s role is faithfully interpreting the Constitution and the laws enacted by those branches.”

She then added: “You can trust that I will bring a fidelity to the law and unyielding respect for the separation of powers to my service on the court.”

Attorney and judge Renatha Francis had been appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to sit on the Florida Supreme Court, but lawsuits ensued and she was unable to join the court. Credit: Schreenshot, Florida Channel.

Grosshans takes the seat that DeSantis had intended for Renatha Francis, a Palm Beach County trial judge who immigrated from Jamaica and who would have become the only Black justice under his governorship.

However, the court repeatedly ruled in a challenge by state Rep. Geraldine Thompson of Orange County, who’s also Black, that Francis wasn’t qualified.

DeSantis, who paints himself as a legal textualist, insisted that Francis had applied for the seat “in good faith reliance on the existing law and Constitution” and the JNC certified her as a nominee “in good faith and reliance on that text and the existing state law.”

Specifically, that he could announce her appointment in May but seat her on Sept. 24, when she will have met the constitutional requirement to have belonged to The Florida Bar for 10 years.

After the court itself roundly rejected that reading, ruling that justices must be qualified when named according to the Constitution’s strict deadlines, Francis withdrew on Friday.

“I know that was difficult to do, but I think it’s a testament to her and her character that she didn’t want any controversy surrounding any type of an appointment,” he said.

President Donald Trump speaking at the 2020 Republican National Convention. Credit: Screenshot from YouTube.

“When she did that, I did not feel that she had been treated very well throughout this process,” DeSantis said, so he called President Trump and recommended Francis for a federal judgeship. Trump was “very receptive.”

“Obviously, life throws you curve balls. I think she served as an inspiration to a lot of people throughout the state of Florida. And I particularly am thankful for the Caribbean-American community who’s rallied around Judge Francis,” the governor said.

Francis said she was “absolutely floored” when DeSantis told her of his recommendation to Trump. “Stuff like this doesn’t happen to a small island girl, an immigrant who came here just hoping to get a piece of the American Dream.”

The governor acted on his birthday, minutes before he would have faced legal sanctions after blowing through the noon deadline the court had set for making the appointment. When he did not, the court issued a writ of mandamus, ordering the governor to meet his obligation no later than 5 p.m.

“Trusting that the governor would fully comply with the order, and consistent with our traditional practice, the court withheld issuance of the writ of mandamus. The deadline has now passed,” the justices said in an unsigned note on the case docket.

“It appearing that the governor has yet to comply, we hereby issue the writ of mandamus and order the governor immediately to comply with the court’s order of Sept. 11 and to certify his compliance to the Court by 5 p.m. today.

A court document acknowledging receipt of the formal commission making Grosshans a justice was time stamped at 4:47:16 p.m.

DeSantis couldn’t resist a dig at the court. Noting that he’d decided upon Grosshans on Sunday, the governor said, “I guess under the court’s most recent precedent, I guess you were a justice starting yesterday because they said selection is the same as assuming office — oh, wait, we can figure that out some other time.”

In its order Friday rejecting Francis for the position, the court told the governor to select another justice from among seven remaining candidates cleared in March by the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.

Four of the seven were women and none was Black.

In her withdrawal letter, Francis wrote: “I am eternally grateful for the support and confidence you placed in me when you selected me for the office of justice of the Florida Supreme Court.”

She added: “In light of the circumstances, I have decided to withdraw my name from consideration for the position. Thank you for your support, and for standing by be throughout the process, for which I am incredibly humbled.”

Francis had offered ethnic diversity but philosophical conformity to the conservative court DeSantis has created since taking office in January 2019. Like the governor she is affiliated with the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, which grooms young lawyers to assume their role in the conservative legal establishment.

Grosshans also is Federalist-affiliated. In fact, all of the candidates were.

DeSantis had already placed on woman on the high court — Barbara Lagoa, who since has been elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

DeSantis announced on May 26 that he wanted to place Francis and John Curiel, an international litigator from Miami, on the court. Francis, who graduated from the for-profit Florida Coastal Law School, had become a Miami-Dade County judge in 2017 and a circuit judge in Palm Beach in 2019.

Couriel took the bench without controversy but recused himself from the case.

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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.