Renatha Francis takes seat on the FL Supreme Court two years after first try

She becomes one of two women and the only Black on the high court

By: - September 1, 2022 2:23 pm

Surrounded by family, Judge Renatha Francis accepts her nomination by Gov. Ron DeSantis to the Florida Supreme Court on Aug. 5, 2022. Credit: Governor’s office

Renatha Francis finally took her seat on the Florida Supreme Court Thursday, two years after justices who now are her colleagues rejected her nomination because she didn’t meet the minimum qualification: membership in the Florida Bar for 10 years.

Francis took her oath of office in a private ceremony in the Supreme Court building in Tallahassee, according to court spokesman Paul Flemming. She is the first Black person to serve on the state’s highest court since Justice Peggy Quince retired in 2019.

“She was sworn into office today by Chief Justice Muñiz. It was an informal event in the courtroom with family and colleagues present. Justice Francis placed her hand on a Bible held by her husband with their two young sons standing with her,” Flemming said in an email.

“Justices in the past have been sworn in at their home courts, in their offices, in different places by different people — there is not a tradition nor a requirement, save for the words as prescribed by the Constitution. This is the final step in the ministerial acts for a new justice to assume the office — the governor delivers signed credentials to the secretary of state and then the swearing in.”

Francis will face a merit-retention election in November 2024 — that is, the first general election held more than one year following her appointment. Voters will decide whether to retain her on the court or remove her.

Among the first controversies Francis will have to help decide is an appeal over Florida’s 15-week abortion ban. The court in 1989 ruled that the privacy clause the voters inserted into the Florida Constitution in 1980 protects access to the procedure (notwithstanding the U.S. Supreme Court’s repudiation of Roe v. Wade) but there’s no guarantee the court as now constituted will respect that precedent.

Francis was a few months shy of meeting the bar-membership mandate at the time Gov. Ron DeSantis first tried to place her on the court — a fact he attempted to skirt by arguing she could spend the interregnum on maternity leave. The Supreme Court wouldn’t have it. DeSantis ended up appointing appellate judge Jamie Grosshans instead.

But the first chance the governor got, following the announced retirement of Justice Alan Lawson, he took it, announcing the Francis appointment on Aug. 5. Lawson’s last day on the court was Wednesday.

Francis and Grosshans are now the only women on the seven-member court.

Francis, an immigrant from Jamaica, holds a law degree from the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, which closed last year amid financial and accreditation problems, plus low rates of passing the bar and finding jobs for graduates.

DeSantis has attempted to paint Francis’ lack of experience as a plus, noting that before entering the law she operated businesses including a trucking company. Francis subsequently worked as an attorney at the Florida First District Court of Appeal and as a judge on the Palm Beach Circuit Court and Miami-Dade county court.

“She’s had other careers before she got into law, and so I actually thought that was a good thing — to take someone that came from a different background rather than someone that was born into, like, a legal family,” DeSantis said in announcing her appointment.

Additionally, as reported by the Florida Bulldog, an investigative news organization, Francis failed to disclose in her application for the court that she had been the subject of judicial ethics complaints.

Ideological fidelity

But what Francis lacks in gravitas she makes up for in fidelity to DeSantis’ ideological leanings through her affiliation with the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. That’s an association that advocates for “originalist” or “textualist” interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, which hold that judges should look to what the framers of that document intended at the close of the Eighteenth Century.

DeSantis himself has been associated with the society and has salted its members within the Florida judiciary, including the Supreme Court, plus the judicial nominating commissions that recommend candidates for judgeships. A similar dynamic at the national level produced the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative supermajority.

“The Florida Supreme Court protects people’s liberty. And inherent in the way that we do that in the judiciary is respecting and observing the limited role that judges play in our constitutional system of government. Alexander Hamilton explained what that meant. That we exercise neither force nor will but merely judgement. We apply the law as written,” she said last month.

Note: This story has been updated to include details of the oath-taking.

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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.