Do-over? Renatha Francis back in running for a seat on the Florida Supreme Court

Rejected by the court last year, she’s eligible now and being vetted

By: - June 1, 2022 7:00 am

Attorney and judge Renatha Francis was named in 2020 by Gov. Ron DeSantis to sit on the Florida Supreme Court but lawsuits ensued and she was unable to join the court. Credit: Screenshot, Florida Channel.

Second time could prove the charm for Renatha Francis, the Palm Beach County trial judge whom Gov. Ron DeSantis attempted to place on the Florida Supreme Court two years ago only to be knocked back by the high court itself.

That rebuff — because Francis hadn’t belonged to the Florida Bar for the 10 years stipulated in the state Constitution — proved an embarrassing setback for a governor whose appointments had rendered the state’s highest court dependably conservative.

Even justices DeSantis had placed on the court concluded he’d overreached in sending up Francis’ name.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, flanked by Renatha Francis and Black office holders, called upon Rep. Geraldine Thompson to drop her opposition to Francis as a Florida Supreme Court justice on Sept. 9, 2020. The court later ordered him to select a different justice. Source: Screenshot

Now, Francis’ name appears on a list of 17 candidates for the Supreme Court seat being vacated as of Aug. 30 by Justice Alan Lawson. The list contains 10 men and seven women. As of now, the court comprises six men and one woman and no Black people.

And now, Francis passed the 10-year threshold as a Bar member.

The Judicial Nominating Commission for the Florida Supreme Court is still going over the lengthy applications filed by the aspirants. Those documents haven’t been made public yet — they need to be redacted first of private information including street addresses of the candidates.

But when the names dropped late last week, the 60-day clock started for the governor to make his appointment. The commission will send between three and six names to the governor. He can pick one or reject the entire list and ask the commission to try again.

That said, Francis is confident enough of an appointment, according to reporting by The Florida Bulldog, an investigative news site, that she has already been seen in the high court’s parking facility picking out a spot. The Bulldog, citing an unnamed “court insider,” said DeSantis has already informed the court that he plans to appoint Francis.

Quick rise

Francis, in her mid-40s, became a trial judge in 2017, when former Gov. Rick Scott placed her on the Miami-Dade County Court and one year later on the Circuit Court. After taking office in 2019, DeSantis moved her to the circuit bench in Palm Beach County, where she works on family and probate cases, according to the website of the state’s Fifteenth Judicial Circuit.

She’d earned a law degree from Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, an institution whose future has been in doubt. Last year, for example, federal education officials denied Florida Coastal School of Law’s application for reinstatement to participate in federal student aid programs.

She won staff attorney and clerkship jobs with the First District Court of Appeals, the influential intermediate appellate court in Tallahassee, then moved on to the politically connected Shutts & Bowen law firm, according to a profile written for the Palm Beach County Bar Association.

At the time that DeSantis tapped her for the high court two years ago, Francis was pregnant with her and her husband’s second child.

She would have been the only Black justice on the court and the only woman, which has been exclusively white and Latino since Justice Peggy Quince reached mandatory retirement age about the time DeSantis took office. The only woman serving now is Jamie Grosshans, whom the governor appointed instead of Francis.

The Florida Legislative Black Caucus endorsed her for the seat two years ago, nearly unanimously.

Geraldine Thompson
State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, Democrat from Orlando. Credit: Colin Hackley

But state House member Geraldine Thompson, an Orange County Democrat who is Black, challenged the appointment, complaining of Francis’ lack of longevity with the Bar. Despite her meteoric rise in the legal profession, she was a few months shy of the 10-year Bar membership requirement.

Thompson also criticized Francis’ ties to the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. That’s a conservative-to-libertarian organization that promotes so-called “textualist” or “originalist” judicial philosophies and develops young attorneys for careers in the conservative legal movement, including judgeships.

DeSantis, himself, has been affiliated with the group and has peppered the state’s judicial nominating commissions with members, including the one that vets candidates for the high court.

In practice, Federalist judges tend to oppose economic regulation, affirmative action, and marriage equality and support for states’ rights.

Looking ahead, the Black Caucus will review the short-listed candidates and decide whether members want to back any, state Senate Democratic Leader Pro Tempore Bobby Powell said in a telephone interview. His district includes the northeast corner of Palm Beach County.

“At this point, it’s a waiting game to see who the candidate will be who will be selected,” he said, and whether to endorse anyone as a caucus.

“Now, we are aware that for the first time in a long time there’s currently no African American person on the Supreme Court. However, I don’t believe that’s the be-all and end-all in terms of whether the Florida Legislative Black Caucus will support someone,” Powell said.

Double embarrassment

As noted above, the sitting justices at the time eventually agreed with Thompson.

The outcome was doubly embarrassing for DeSantis. It left the governor — who’d disavowed support from open white supremacists during his 2018 campaign — without a single Black justice to his name. Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum famously said during a debate, “Now, I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist, I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”

The sitting justices of the Florida Supreme Court as of May 2022. Credit: Supreme Court

The botched appointment also undermined what DeSantis has proclaimed as a strength: His commitment to appointing judges who’ll follow the letter of the law. That didn’t stop him from attempting to parse the constitutional requirement to justify Francis’ appointment.

In arguments filed with the Florida Supreme Court, DeSantis’ attorneys minced words in asserting potentially sweeping authority for Florida’s governors:

  • That judicial appointees need not be qualified when a governor selects them to serve on the court, as long as they will be by the time they take their oaths of office — even if that happens months or years later.
  • Within that framework, the governor is not bound by the deadline, established in the Florida Constitution, for filling vacancies on appellate benches, including the Supreme Court.

To no avail. The justices, in an unsigned order, even threw the words of Antonin Scalia, one of the original originalists, in the governor’s face.

“To some, enforcing rules like these might seem needlessly formalistic when the result is to preclude the appointment of an otherwise qualified candidate. But ‘formalism,’ as Justice Scalia observed, ‘is what makes a government a government of laws and not of men,’” the Florida Supreme Court justices wrote.

The Phoenix reached out to Rep. Thompson for comment about recent developments but she has not yet responded. She did tell the Bulldog that she remains skeptical of Francis.

“The governor has yet another opportunity to appoint a highly qualified African-American to the Florida Supreme Court from among those who applied in 2020,” she told the publication, “and I hope he will seek quality in this appointment.”

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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.