When it comes to judicial appointments, it’s not unusual to witness debates overs whether nominees are truly qualified.
But with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ latest pick for the Florida Supreme Court, there is no debate: She’s not qualified.
It’s not a matter of opinion. Renatha Francis literally does not meet the state’s constitutional guidelines for having been a member of the Florida Bar for at least 10 years.
She was four months shy when DeSantis announced her appointment in May.
Florida’s Constitution has very few hard-and-fast rules for Supreme Court justices. They must be Florida voters. They can’t be 75 or older. And they must have 10 years legal experience — which Francis didn’t have when DeSantis announced her appointment and which she still doesn’t have now.
So what does Francis have going for her?
Membership in The Federalist Society — a group described by Politico as “one of the most influential legal organizations in history … deliberately, diligently shifting the country’s judiciary to the right.” With DeSantis in office, the group has a near monopoly on judicial appointments in Florida.
What Francis lacks in legal experience — her resume, for instance, shows that she never took a single case to verdict as a lawyer — she made up for in commitment to the Federalist Society. She cited memberships in three different chapters: Tallahassee, Miami and Palm Beach.
Now, let’s be clear: DeSantis is entitled to appoint justices of whatever political persuasion he wants. To the winner goes the spoils.
But the winner doesn’t get to break the rules. And that’s what Orlando legislator Geraldine Thompson says DeSantis clearly did — and why Thompson filed a legal challenge trying to block Francis from taking her seat.
Thompson, a Democrat, said the premise of her challenge is simple. “This is about eligibility,” she said. “He made an appointment of a person who was ineligible.”
It doesn’t matter that Francis will one day become eligible. If a candidate is ineligible during the limited time frame in which the governor must announce an appointment, Thompson said, the candidate is ineligible to serve.
Keep in mind: If Thompson is successful with her challenge — or if DeSantis simply said: You know what? You’re right. I can find a judge who’s actually qualified. — it’s not like some flaming liberal would go on the Supreme Court.
This conservative governor would simply ask his conservative nominating committee to give him another conservative jurist.
But DeSantis has seemed smitten with Francis because she checks several important boxes.
She’s black. (The high court currently has no black members.)
She’s female. (Seven of the eight members are men.)
And she’s not just a member of the Federalist Society, but a young member — age 42 — meaning she could theoretically stay on the Supreme Court for more than three decades.
DeSantis has been candid about wanting to remake the state’s courts. (See the Florida Politics story from last year: “Ron DeSantis promises new Supreme Court won’t side so often with Democrats.”)
The governor’s office has not filed a formal response to the lawsuit. And the governor’s general counsel (who’s also a featured contributor for the Federal Society’s website) did not respond to a request for comment.
As for her bio, Francis is a 2010 graduate of the Florida Coastal School of Law, a relatively new, for-profit school in Jacksonville.
She worked briefly for the Shutts & Bowen where she represented insurance providers before former Gov. Rick Scott appointed her as a county judge in Miami in 2017 and DeSantis promoted her to circuit judge in 2019.
When DeSantis announced her appointment for the Supreme Court, his news release said little about her legal prowess. Instead, he cited her life story, noted that she ran two businesses and “served as the primary caregiver for a younger sibling in Jamaica,” before concluding: “I know she will serve our state well.”
DeSantis supporters — and some Democrats and minority legal groups — have cheered the governor’s efforts to diversify the court.
But that’s part of what Thompson, who is also black, finds so insulting — the notion that, in a state with more than 20 million people and 100,000 lawyers, there wasn’t a single black person who was also qualified to serve.
Thompson cited six other black applicants — some appointed decades ago by conservatives like Jeb Bush — who were “highly qualified and fully eligible.”
Legal challenges aside, I find that part of her argument particularly compelling.
Sure, the governor is going to pick judges who suit his politics. But can’t he also find some who are actually qualified? Who have experience under their belt? For the highest court in the state?
When he doesn’t, he’s sending a message that ideology trumps qualifications.
I’m not sure DeSantis cares. Or maybe his advisors are counting on legal stalling tactics to drag out this fight until Francis is actually eligible to take her seat.
Thompson’s attorney, William Ponall, says that’s not how it works; that Francis can’t be seated through this nomination process because she was never legally eligible for consideration.
“The law is the law,” Ponall said. “It’s a hard and fast rule in the constitution.”
Ah yes, the constitution and the letter of the law. Those deeply cherished principles that members of the Federalist Society members claim to care so much about … except, it appears, when they don’t.
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