By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Two years after justices thwarted his first attempt to place Renatha Francis on the Florida Supreme Court, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday tapped the Palm Beach County circuit judge to serve on a high court dominated by conservative jurists.
With four of the seven-member court’s justices appointed by DeSantis, the Republican governor will leave his Federalist Society imprint on the Supreme Court for decades to come.
Francis, who was among six finalists sent to DeSantis by the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission this summer, will replace outgoing Justice Alan Lawson, who will retire from the bench on Aug. 31. Lawson stepped down more than a decade in advance of justices’ mandatory retirement age of 75.
DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate, sketched out his judicial philosophy Friday morning at the Richard & Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum, referring to the “founding fathers” as he introduced Francis.
“Our government here in the United States and in the state of Florida is supposed to be what’s called a government of laws, not a government of men,” he said, calling out judges who have “taken power away from people’s elected representatives” by having “legislated from the bench.”
“And that’s not their role. Their role is to apply the law and Constitution as it’s written,” he added. “It’s really important that courts are discharging the duties that they have under the Constitution within the confines of those limitations.”
Francis, who will be the court’s first Jamaican-American justice, was the only Black nominee on the list presented to the governor this summer. The court has not had a Black justice since former Justice Peggy Quince stepped down after reaching a mandatory retirement age in 2019.
Former Gov. Rick Scott appointed Francis in 2018 to serve as a judge in Miami-Dade County. The following year, DeSantis tapped her to serve as a 15th Judicial Circuit judge in Palm Beach County. DeSantis said she will join the Supreme Court in early September.
Francis, who was born in Jamaica, “understands what the proper role of the judge is in America’s constitutional system,” DeSantis said.
“And I also think being an immigrant, she probably has more appreciation for our constitutional system,” the governor said, noting that she attended law school after starting her own business. “I believe this appointment of Judge Francis is one that will really reinvigorate and fortify our judiciary in a very positive way but also send a great message that you can realize your dreams.”
Francis, who called herself the “epitome of the American dream,” echoed DeSantis’ ideology during Friday’s event.
“As a student of history, I was and I remain in awe of the United States Constitution,” she said. “The Florida Supreme Court protects the people’s liberty, and inherent in the way that we do that is by respecting and observing the limited role that judges play in our constitutional system of government.”
DeSantis also named Francis to the Supreme Court in 2020, but her appointment became embroiled in a legal and political battle.
Wrangling over Francis’ appointment began when state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, asked the Supreme Court to find that DeSantis’ choice of Francis violated the state Constitution because Francis would not reach a 10-year Bar membership requirement for justices until Sept. 24, 2020.
DeSantis in May 2020 announced he was choosing Francis and John Couriel to fill two Supreme Court openings, selecting them from a list of nine candidates submitted by the nominating commission.
Couriel immediately joined the Supreme Court, but DeSantis said Francis would be sworn in as a justice after she reached the Bar requirement months later.
In a rebuke to DeSantis, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected his selection of Francis and ordered the governor to appoint another candidate from the list of nominees. He subsequently appointed Justice Jamie Grosshans.
DeSantis reiterated Friday that he disagreed with the court’s decision about Francis. He also said that, although he had chosen her two years ago, Francis wasn’t “entitled” to be named as Lawson’s successor.
“I said I am going to do it from scratch, no preconceived notions and we’re going to go with the person that we think has done the best job,” he said. “We were happy to appoint or trying to appoint Judge Francis two years ago … but then seeing how she’s progressed since then, she’s done even better.”
Since he took office less than four years ago, DeSantis’ appointments have secured a conservative shift on the seven-member court, following the mandatory retirements in 2019 of Quince and two other longtime justices, Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis.
DeSantis appointed Couriel, Grosshans and now-Chief Justice Carlos Muniz, who joined Lawson and Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston to form a solid conservative majority. Justice Jorge Labarga, who joined Pariente, Lewis and Quince on many major issues, is now often a lone dissenter.
Shortly after taking office, DeSantis also appointed Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa to the Supreme Court, but they were later tapped by former President Donald Trump to serve on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. DeSantis subsequently selected Couriel and Grosshans.
Francis’ brandished her Federalist Society credentials on Friday with a quote from Alexander Hamilton’s admonition in the Federalist Papers that judges “exercise neither force nor will, but merely judgment.”
“We apply the law as written. This timeless principle of civil society not only promotes uniformity, predictability. It’s essential to preserving liberty. It restrains arbitrariness. It restrains abuses of power. And if history teaches us anything, is that as simple and enduring as this principle is, it’s evaded the vast majority of human history until this American experiment,” she said.