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Courts / Law

Florida Supreme Court Orders DeSantis To Pick New Justice

Woman speaks into microphone. Two people sit behind her.
The Florida Channel
The appointment of Palm Beach County circuit judge Renatha Francis to the Florida Supreme Court was nullified Friday because she hasn't been a member of the Florida Bar for at least 10 years.

The Court unanimously ruled Friday that Judge Renatha Francis is constitutionally ineligible to serve as a justice because she hasn't been a member of the Florida Bar for at least 10 years.

The Florida Supreme Court says Governor Ron DeSantis must pick a new justice by Monday after his first pick was ruled ineligible for the appointment.

The Court ruled Friday that Palm Beach Circuit Court Judge Renatha Francis is constitutionally ineligible to serve because she hasn't been a member of the Florida Bar for at least 10 years.

Francis was appointed in May, but doesn't meet the ten year requirement until September 24.

“The opinion redeems the confidence that Floridians can place in our courts," said Windemere Democratic state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, who sued over Francis’ nomination to the court.

DeSantis has criticized Thompson’s lawsuit, saying it's stopping the diversification of the court.

"This particular representative is somebody that has been very vocal about wanting to have a Black justice on the Florida Supreme Court. Guess what? The petition she has filed right now would prevent a Black justice. To me, that's the hypocrisy that so many people are sick and tired of."

"She was the only African-American on the list - they eliminated every single other African-American, even though they were highly qualified and eligible," said Thompson. "They eliminated six African-Americans and put forward the only one who was ineligible to serve."

DeSantis in May announced he was choosing Francis and Miami attorney John Couriel to fill two Supreme Court openings, selecting them from a list of nine candidates submitted by the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission on Jan. 23. Couriel immediately joined the Supreme Court, but DeSantis said Francis would be sworn in as a justice after she reached the Bar requirement on Sept. 24.

Francis “was constitutionally ineligible for the office of the justice of the Supreme Court” earlier this year, Friday’s opinion said.

“And Judge Francis remains constitutionally ineligible now,” justices added.

The justices took issue with DeSantis not only for his appointment of Francis, but also for waiting beyond a constitutionally mandated 60-day time period to fill the two vacancies on the Supreme Court.

The vacancies occurred after President Donald Trump tapped former justices Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck to serve on the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Florida Constitution requires that governors fill vacancies within 60 days after receiving lists of nominees from the nominating commission, but DeSantis said he postponed the two appointments due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Constitution’s 60-day deadline to fill this vacancy in office expired many months ago. Yet the governor has not satisfied his legal obligation to fill the vacancy by making a constitutionally valid appointment,” justices wrote in Friday’s four-page ruling.

The 10-year Bar membership and 60-day appointment deadline “are bright-line textual mandates that impose rules rather than standards and prioritize certainty over discretion,” Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Ricky Polston, Jorge Labarga, Alan Lawson and Carlos Muñiz --- who was appointed by DeSantis --- wrote in the unanimous decision. Couriel has not participated in the challenge over Francis.

Justices also relied on the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to bolster their interpretation of the law.

“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 8not of men,’” they wrote.

The court also rejected arguments by DeSantis’ lawyers that Thompson’s request to cancel Francis’ appointment was an “eleventh-hour attempt to redline” the nominating commission’s list.

“The JNC itself made the decision to nominate a constitutionally ineligible candidate, and it is responsible for the consequences of that decision,” Friday’s ruling said.

Justices unanimously ordered DeSantis to appoint another candidate from a list of nominees offered early this year by the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.

The ruling is a win for constitutionalists but not those looking for judicial diversity. Francis would’ve been the only Black justice -- and first Caribbean-American to serve. The seven remaining nominees on the list that was sent to the governor in January are all white.

Thompson’s first attempt to remove Francis included a remedy that would’ve allowed for only a Black eligible applicant to be chosen.

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