MIAMI — Gov. Ron DeSantis dipped into the legal ranks of South Florida’s immigrant communities Tuesday in announcing appointments to fill two vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court.
John Couriel, an attorney with Miami firm Kobre & Kim, and Renatha Francis, a Palm Beach County circuit judge, have been picked to fill seats left open when former justices Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck were appointed last year to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lagoa and Luck were both from Miami-Dade County.
“It’s a testament to the great talent we have here,” DeSantis said of the South Florida picks in making the announcement at the Miami-Dade County public library main branch on Flagler Street.
According to the Florida Constitution, each appellate district must have at least one justice elected or appointed from the district to the Supreme Court who is a resident of the district at the time of the original appointment.
That means five must live inside the territory of the district courts at the time of appointment. Until Tuesday, there was no appointee from the territory of the Third District, a gap Couriel now fills.
The 2019-20 budget sets Supreme Court justices’ salaries at $220,600. That means a big raise for Francis, who said on her application that she earned $150,000 last year, and an even bigger pay cut for Couriel, who declared $1.6 million on his application. DeSantis has not yet signed the 2020-21 budget.
First Jamaican-born justice
Francis, a Jamaican immigrant who moved to Florida as an adult, will be the first justice from that country to serve. She has not been a lawyer for 10 years, so she must wait until September to join the bench.
“When I embarked on my profession into law, never did I imagine my journey would be here ... I am humbled that I get to be part of this American experiment and serve at the highest level in the state judiciary,” she said Tuesday. “The Florida Supreme Court protects the people’s liberty.”
The selection was hailed by Caribbean-American attorneys in Miami, where Francis was known for her stint presiding over bond court.
“It’s an amazing and proud day for all past, present and aspiring Caribbean-American lawyers,” said Miami defense lawyer Tara Kawass, herself a native of Jamaica.
“Judge Francis is an amazing addition to the bench who exemplifies what can be attained with hard work and perseverance.”
Son of Cuban immigrants
Couriel is the son of Cuban immigrants, his parents having arrived separately in 1961. His father was among 14,000 children air lifted into South Florida during Operation Pedro Pan.
“I am grateful to my parents, who made the most of the opportunities available only here, only to Americans. For my father and for his parents, that meant sacrifices I, now a father myself, find inconceivable,” he said Tuesday. “My mother, too, came from Cuba. Her parents took whatever work they could find, did it well, and without complaint so that she and her siblings would know what is possible in this country. Today, they do.”
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a lawyer who said he had worked with Couriel as has Gelber’s wife, assistant U.S. attorney Joan Silverstein, said “Couriel is a strong choice.”
“Very decent guy and obviously terrific attorney.”
Couriel listed notable references, like former Gov. Jeb Bush and former labor secretary and former United States attorney for the Southern District of Florida Alexander Acosta, who resigned last year amid pressure over his handling of the Jeffrey Epstein sex trafficking case.
Couriel unsuccessfully vied for U.S. attorney in Miami., and also made an unsuccessful run as a Republican for state Senate in 2012.
In 2016, Couriel ran for state House and lost against Rep. Daisy Baez of Coral Gables, who eventually resigned as part of a deal cut with prosecutors over misdemeanor perjury charge in a case involving her legal residency.
All nine candidates recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission for the two vacancies were associated with the Federalist Society, a conservative-libertarian organization with which the governor himself is affiliated. The group promotes a “textualist” approach to law, meaning members tend to support states’ rights and oppose economic regulation. The chairman of the search committee for Supreme Court candidates was Federalist Daniel Nordby, a partner at the Shutts & Bowen law firm, with which Francis was affiliated.
Francis has belonged to Federalist Society chapters in Tallahassee, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach County since 2015, and has attended three Federalist Society conventions: the Annual Federalist Society Convention and National Federalist Society Lawyer Convention in 2017, and the National Federalist Society Lawyer Convention in 2016.
“The Florida Supreme Court protects people’s liberty,” Francis said. “This timeless principle in a civil society promotes predictability, uniformity, and it provides a framework for and restraints on the polity, checking arbitrariness and potential abuses of power.”
Couriel has been a member of the Federalist Society since 2000.
“You’ve heard it said that Alexander Hamilton said courts have neither force nor will, but merely judgment, and sometimes a good audience,” he said.
DeSantis noted that Couriel represents the Cuban-American community as a person who “shows dedication to freedom, democratic self-government, and the Constitution.”
“Any time there’s issues with people standing up for freedom and democracy and rule of law, you just look to the Cuban-American community here in South Florida,” he said. “I think John really exemplifies that.”
▪ Age: 42.
▪ Place of birth: Portmore, St. Catherine, Jamaica.
▪ Education: Florida Coastal Law School (2010), University of West Indies
▪ Legal experience: Palm Beach County Circuit Court judge in the family and probate division in West Palm Beach; county court and circuit court judge in Miami-Dade County; counsel for class action and mass litigation practice group at Miami firm Shutts & Bowen, LLP; attorney and law clerk at the First District Court of Appeal.
▪ Other work experience: Sold skincare products and nutritional supplements as part of a company called YouLabs in 2013, 2014 and 2015. In her late teens and early 20s, she operated a bar and a trucking company while attending college.
▪ Family: Two children: Joshua (2) and Matthew (one month). Her husband, Phillip is a consultant.
▪ Income earned in 2019: $150,045.
▪ Hobbies: Family time, cooking, reading.
▪ Age: 42.
▪ Place of birth: Miami.
▪ Education: Christopher Columbus High School, Harvard Law School (graduated 2003), Harvard College.
▪ Legal experience: Attorney with Miami firm Kobre & Kim; assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida; associate attorney at Davis Polk & Wardell.
▪ Family: Couriel has two children: Jonas (8) and Eden (7). His wife, Rebecca Toonkel, is a pulmonologist and professor at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.
▪ Income earned in 2019: $1.6 million.
▪ Hobbies: Boating, running, travel.
Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and David Ovalle contributed to this report.