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DeSantis names Renatha Francis to Florida Supreme Court (again)

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis for the second time named Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Renatha Francis to the Florida Supreme Court.

Francis, 44, was DeSantis’ choice for the court in 2020, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled that she didn’t meet one of the minimum requirements for the job: 10 years as a lawyer with the Florida Bar.

The Jamaican-born Francis is a member of the Federalist Society, a group of lawyers and judges who believe the judiciary should have a more limited role. With Francis, DeSantis deepens his imprint on Florida’s highest court after more than three years as governor. Francis would be his fourth appointment, giving the Court a majority of conservative justices picked by DeSantis.

Related: How did Renatha Francis ascend to Florida’s highest court?

Francis is replacing Justice Alan Lawson, who resigned earlier this year.

At a Friday news conference in West Palm Beach, DeSantis dismissed the dispute over Francis’ qualifications that prompted the Supreme Court to deem her unqualified in 2020.

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, had sued to stop the previous nomination, pointing out that the state Constitution required a nominee be a member of the Florida Bar for 10 years. When DeSantis nominated her, he created a bizarre situation: Francis would have had to wait another four months to meet the 10-year mark before she could actually take the seat.

The court’s justices unanimously decided she was not qualified and concluded that the governor violated the Constitution by choosing her.

“Look, it was a disputable, disputed point of law,” DeSantis said Friday. “It was all politics. There wasn’t anything that was based in principle.”

Thompson said Friday that she still has doubts about whether Francis is qualified for the court.

“She has 10 years but clearly is minimally qualified, even today,” Thompson said. “(DeSantis) has a political agenda, and he certainly wants people on the Florida Supreme Court who are going to help him accomplish that agenda.”

When Francis appeared this year on the list of finalists chosen by the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, which is stacked with political insiders and led by a powerful Tallahassee lobbyist, her nomination appeared assured.

But DeSantis said Friday that his office did interviews with each candidate, asking questions about the law and their judicial philosophies.

“I said, ‘I’m going to do it from scratch, no preconceived notions, and we’re going to go with a person that we think this is the best job,’” he said Friday.

Francis is not the first Black woman to serve on the court — that would be former Justice Peggy Quince, who served from 1999 to 2019. But Francis is the first justice of Jamaican descent. DeSantis said her background was a factor in her selection.

“I actually thought that it was a good thing to take someone that came from different backgrounds rather than someone that was born into, like, a legal family,” DeSantis said. “I think Judge Francis is proof that you can you can start off with long odds (and) you can still do great things.”

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Francis graduated from the University of West Indies before moving to America and receiving her law degree from the for-profit Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville. She became a member of the Bar on Sept. 24, 2010.

Since then, she’s experienced a rapid rise. She spent the bulk of her legal career as a clerk and staff attorney for the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal before joining the law firm Shutts and Bowen mostly representing insurance companies in personal injury protection cases.

In 2017, she was plucked from relative obscurity by then-Gov. Rick Scott and named to the Miami-Dade County bench, handling civil cases. Less than a year later, Scott elevated her to the circuit bench.

Then, DeSantis appointed her to the Palm Beach County bench, an unusual move considering Francis didn’t live there. She later told the Judicial Nominating Commission that her husband, Phillip Fender, who owns a consulting firm, had a job opportunity in Palm Beach County. (DeSantis has since appointed him to the Judicial Nominating Commission in Palm Beach County, even though he’s not a lawyer.)

On the bench, Francis has had a handful of complaints filed against her, according to the Florida Bulldog. On her application for the Supreme Court, she stated that she had never had a complaint filed against her. The chair of the nominating commission told the Bulldog that it was possible she did not know about the complaints.

Francis on Friday thanked Scott and her mentors.

“When I embarked on my career in the law, never did I imagine it would bring me here,” she said.

She emphasized the “limited role judges play in our constitutional system of government,” echoing the view of DeSantis and the conservative Federalist Society that judges should rely on the text of the law and the Constitution, rather than relying on things like prior court rulings or legislative history.

Francis will officially take her seat on Sept. 1, joining six other justices.

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