Florida Supreme Court Appointments

Renatha Francis smiles as she speaks during a news conference Tuesday, May 26, 2020, at the Miami-Dade Public Library in Miami. Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed two South Floridians to the state Supreme Court on Tuesday: Francis, a Palm Beach County circuit judge who immigrated from Jamaica and, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is the son of Cuban immigrants.

(The Center Square) – When Gov. Ron DeSantis named two justices to the Florida Supreme Court in May, was it an official appointment or merely an announcement?

That will be among the questions pondered by Florida’s Supreme Court as it determines whether DeSantis’ appointment of Renatha Francis to the state’s highest court will stand.

DeSantis announced May 26 that Miami attorney John Couriel, 42, and Francis, 43, would fill two vacancies on the state’s Supreme Court.

Couriel assumed his seat immediately, and Francis’ appointment was effective Sept. 24, when she accrued the 10-year membership in the Florida Bar constitutionally mandated for state Supreme Court justices.

Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, challenged Francis’ appointment in a lawsuit filed before the Supreme Court.

Justices ruled Aug. 27 that DeSantis exceeded his executive privilege when he named a “constitutionally ineligible applicant” to the court and green-lighted the lawsuit for trial Tuesday.

In papers filed late Wednesday, however, DeSantis’ attorneys argued he did not appoint Francis on May 26 but only issued an “announcement” she would be appointed once qualified Sept. 24.

“The facts at issue, the relevant law, and the recognition that the governor would not have knowingly taken an immediately futile action, all clearly point to an understanding the governor merely ‘announced’ an appointment on May 26,” DeSantis’ lawyers wrote in a 24-page argument.

Thompson's lawsuit asks the court to negate the appointment and require the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) to resubmit the original list of nine finalists, minus Francis and Courier, to fill the remaining seat.

DeSantis’ lawyers contend Francis should not be excluded from the JNC list, requiring the governor to choose a candidate from among the seven other candidates.

“No circumstance warrants the extraordinary remedy (Thompson) seeks – for the court to sever a name from the certified JNC list, or otherwise restrict the governor from selecting from the list as presented to him by the JNC, effectively striking Judge Francis from the list,” state attorneys said. “This remedy is inappropriate on multiple counts. Because the court lacks the constitutional authority to conduct functions constitutionally provided to an independent JNC, the court should not take the extreme act that petitioner seeks.”

Requiring DeSantis to immediately fill the vacancy with another candidate from the JNC list would require time to do updated background investigations of nominees and review their recent legal work, the governors’ attorneys argued.

“The governor is deeply aware that his decision will reverberate across the state’s judiciary for decades to come,” the argument reads. “He takes seriously his solemn duty to perform the constitutional act of appointing a justice to the state’s highest court. Striking Judge Francis from consideration and requiring an ‘immediate appointment’ would not only prejudice the governor and the judiciary, but the very citizens of Florida whom both branches serve. The people of Florida reasonably expect that their governor will have sufficient time to vet and select a nominee to assume the duties of the state’s highest court.”

Thompson’s attorneys are expected to file a response before midnight Thursday.

A University of the West Indies graduate with a 2010 law degree from the Florida Coastal School of Law, Francis was appointed by DeSantis to the 15th Circuit Court in Palm Beach County in October. She previously served as Miami-Dade County judge.

Francis would be the only woman and Black justice on the Florida Supreme Court and the first Caribbean American to sit on any state supreme court in the nation.