Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers a question during a roundtable meeting in August. | Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court blocked Renatha Francis’ appointment to the state’s high court Friday, ruling her ineligible for the job, and halting Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ pick of the second Black woman to ever serve on the panel.
The decision punctuates a monthslong legal fight infused with racial politics and unusual alliances, and appears likely to force the Republican governor to select a different judge to sit on the court.
DeSantis tapped Francis in May to fill one of two vacancies, and he went on to highlight the Palm Beach County judge, a Black woman born in Jamaica, as evidence of his commitment to adding diversity to the court.
But Francis, who would have been the only sitting Black justice, quickly came under scrutiny because she had not been a member of the Florida Bar for 10 years, a requirement in the state constitution. A lawsuit was filed by state Rep. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando) challenging the Francis pick, setting up the multi-layered political drama and Friday’s eventual rejection, which admonished the governor over his legal arguments.
The unanimous decision was an unambiguous smackdown of a Republican governor by a court that has been widely hailed as conservative-leaning. Justice John Couriel recused himself from the case. DeSantis sought to sway the justices by arguing that Francis’ pick was an “announcement” and not a formal appointment, but that logic did not persuade the court.
“Either approach leads to the same conclusion: the Governor has not complied with the constitution’s clear commands,” the opinion stated.
Adding to the intrigue of the ruling, which poked a huge hole in DeSantis’ legal argument, was who crafted the argument. The ruling was penned by Justice Carlos Muñiz, a DeSantis appointee to the court who is also on President Donald Trump’s shortlist of potential future U.S. Supreme Court picks.
The lawsuit was filed in July, but the political mad scramble did not kick off until after a Tuesday ruling where the court gave DeSantis one day to convince them they should not order him to pick a new justice.
DeSantis also held a press conference Wednesday that allied the governor with a handful of Broward County Democrats, the political equivalent of dogs and cats coming together. That included Haiti-born House Democrat Dotie Joseph, who supported Francis becoming the first Caribbean-born justice on the Florida Supreme Court. She tried to assuage the concerns of fellow Democrats by arguing Francis was not cut from the mold of Clarence Thomas, the conservative Black jurist on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“My colleagues and I on the Florida Legislative Black Caucus determined that she is not a Clarence Thomas,” Joseph said. “While she may be conservative and a member of the Federalist Society, none of those things in and of themselves disqualify Judge Francis from deserving our support or stamp of approval.”
“All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” Joseph added of Thomas.
One day later, Thompson hit back, unloading on DeSantis for what she said was a disingenuous effort to paint critics opposed to the Francis pick on constitutional grounds as opposing a Black woman being appointed to the court.
“This is one of the worst and most egregious examples of racial tokenism that I have seen in my life,” Thompson told reporters.
She noted that there were six constitutionally qualified black judges who applied for the two vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court, but Francis was the only one forwarded to DeSantis by the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, which is tasked with recommended a slate of judges the governor must pick from. Only Francis made the final cut.
“They could have selected more [black judges],” Thompson told POLITICO on Friday. “They didn’t.”
The court also addressed critics who believe the 10-year bar membership provision in the Florida constitution is arbitrary and should not be a reason to toss a Florida Supreme Court appointee. To underscore that point, they employed the words of a conservative legal icon: the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
“To some, enforcing rules like these might seem needlessly formalistic when the result is to preclude the appointment of an otherwise qualified candidate,” the opinion stated. “But ‘formalism,’ as Justice Scalia observed, ‘is what makes a government a government of laws and not of men.’”
DeSantis was a member of Congress in 2016 when Scalia died. He took to the House floor to memorialize the legal giant, calling him “one of the all-time greats in American law.”
The court’s Friday ruling went on to needle the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, the body tasked with crafting a slate of judges for the governor to pick from.
It’s one of the most powerful panels in the state. It is chaired by prominent insurance lobbyist and GOP donor Fred Karlinsky, and includes among its members Daniel Nordby, a former general counsel to Gov. Rick Scott, Jesse Panuccio, who served both in the Scott administration and in the No. 3 post in President Donald Trump’s Justice Department.
“The JNC itself made the decisions to nominate a constitutionally ineligible candidate, and it is responsible for the consequences of that decision,” the justice wrote.
The court has given DeSantis until noon on Monday to pick one of the seven other judges on the slate put forward by the commission.
None of the remaining candidates are Black.
The ascendant conservative jurist knee-capping the legal defense of the governor who appointed him sparked a full court press messaging effort from DeSantis and his allies, who sought to amplify the historic nature of putting someone with Francis’ heritage on the state’s highest court.
“@GovRonDeSantis came out in support of women, immigrants and Black Florida residents like Jamaican American Judge Renatha Francis who is his pick for the @FlCourts,” tweeted Helen Aguirre Ferré, the Florida GOP executive director who until recently was DeSantis’ communication director, on Wednesday.
“[Thompson] Should be ashamed to play politics & deny the FL Supreme Court the only Black female justice,” she added.