DeSantis appoints Renatha Francis to Florida Supreme Court (again)

TALHASI – Governor Ron DeSantis has appointed Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Renatha Francis for the second time to the Florida Supreme Court.

Francis was DeSantis’ choice of court in 2020, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled that she did not meet one of the minimum requirements for the job: 10 years as an attorney with the Florida Bar.

Jamaica-born Francis is a member of the Federal Assembly, a group of lawyers and judges who believe the judiciary should have a more limited role.

Related: How did Renatha Francis rise to the highest court in Florida?

Francis will replace Judge Alan Lawson, who resigned earlier this year.

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

Representative Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, filed a lawsuit to stop the previous nomination, stating that the state constitution requires a candidate to be a member of the Florida Bar for 10 years. When DeSantis nominated her, it created a strange situation: Francis had to wait another four months to meet the 10-year mark before she could actually take the seat.

Court judges unanimously decided she was ineligible and concluded that the governor had violated the constitution by choosing her.

“Look, it was a disputed legal point,” DeSantis said Friday. It was all politics. Nothing was based on principle.”

Thompson said Friday that she still had doubts about whether Francis was eligible for the court.

“She’s got 10 years but she’s clearly minimally qualified, even today,” Thompson said. “(DeSantis) has a political agenda, and he definitely wants people on the Florida Supreme Court who will help him get that agenda done.”

When Frances appeared this year on the list of finalists selected by the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Committee, crowded with political insiders and led by a member of the powerful Tallahassee lobby, her nomination appeared certain.

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

“I said, ‘I’m going to do it from scratch, with no preconceived ideas,’ and we’re going with someone we think is the best job,” he said Friday.

Frances isn’t the first black woman to serve on the court – she may be former Justice Peggy Quince, who served from 1999 to 2019. But Francis is the first judge of Jamaican descent. DeSantis said her background was a factor in her choice.

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

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Frances graduated from the University of the West Indies before moving to America and earned her law degree from the for-profit Florida College of Law in Jacksonville. She became a member of the Bar on September 24, 2010.

Since then, it has experienced a rapid rise. She spent the greater part of her legal career as a writer and staff attorney at the Tallahassee-based First District Court of Appeals before joining the law firm Shutts and Bowen which predominantly represents insurance companies in personal injury protection cases.

In 2017, it was pulled out of relative obscurity by the then government. Rick Scott was appointed to the Miami-Dade County bench, where he handles civil cases. Less than a year later, Scott elevated her to the circuit bench.

Subsequently, DeSantis appointed her to the Palm Beach County seat, an unusual move given that Francis did not live there. She later told the Judicial Nominating Committee that her husband, Philip Fender, who owns a consulting firm, had a business opportunity in Palm Beach County. (DeSantis has since appointed him to the Palm Beach County Judicial Nominating Committee, although he is not an attorney.)

Frances will officially take her seat on September 1.

This is an evolving story. Check again for updates.

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