For all the accolades and credentials on the resumés of newly appointed Florida Supreme Court Justices John Couriel and Renatha Francis, perhaps the most consequential are their ages.
Couriel and Francis are 42 years old.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is turning the state’s high court over to Gen X. His previous appointees were all born in the same era. And in tapping lawyers with the prime of their legal careers ahead of them, DeSantis has all but guaranteed that a generation of legal precedent will be forged by justices put in place by Republicans.
It’s a reality that distresses Democrats and delights Republicans, who nevertheless agree that the reverberations of this younger, more conservative court will be far-reaching. Abortion, redistricting, public education, voting rights — this court, shaped more by DeSantis than any of his predecessors, will likely tackle all of it.
“The justices appointed by Gov. DeSantis will largely be his legacy,” said Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa. “When we look back in 20 years, we will be talking about a DeSantis court and what that led to.”
DeSantis is the first Republican governor in recent memory to enjoy a state Supreme Court with all justices appointed by his own party. For almost 20 years, Democratic governors had appointed a majority of the high court and it served as the last check on the GOP power in Tallahassee. The court often stymied the legislative agendas of ex-Govs. Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.
But with the forced retirement of three justices last year, a court that often sided 4-3 with Democrats became a court with six of seven justices having more conservative tendencies.
Already, DeSantis and Republican lawmakers have tested this new clout. In 2019, DeSantis and the Legislature created a program that awarded low-income Floridians private school vouchers paid directly with public dollars. The program appears to be in direct conflict with a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling, which deemed a nearly identical Bush-era voucher plan unconstitutional.
Republicans, and even many Democrats and public school advocates, believe the outcome will be more favorable to vouchers this time around. DeSantis’ other appointee to the high court was Justice Carlos Muñiz, who came from the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos, a lifelong advocate for advancing private schools at the expense of public education.
“We would’ve never have passed that with the old court in place,” said state Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who has spent 18 years in the Legislature. “We would have walked that over to the old court and they would have thrown it out.”
Lee added: “You’re going to see a lot more bills like that."
The new court has also demonstrated a willingness to disregard precedent set by previous courts. In a stunning move, the state Supreme Court voted 4-1 in January to reverse a previous decision and declare that a unanimous jury should not be required to sentence someone to death. In their ruling, the judges wrote that their predecessors “got it wrong.” They reversed another death penalty case earlier this month.
This is the outcome hoped for by Republicans, who for years decried state Supreme Court rulings as the work of activists judges usurping democratically elected lawmakers and governors.
“There’s a lot of judicial philosophy pent up the in the last 25 years of jurisprudence and this court is going to review it,” Lee said.
Like Couriel and Francis, Muñiz was also in his 40s when DeSantis picked him. The state constitution allows Supreme Court justices to serve until they’re 75, ensuring DeSantis’ influence on the court and Florida will extend for decades, beyond his his four or eight years in office.
DeSantis recognized as a candidate in 2018 the serendipitous opportunity the next governor would have to fill three Supreme Court vacancies. Like President Donald Trump in 2016, he made nominating conservative judges a centerpiece of his campaign. Republicans, bruised by their repeated loses in the highest state court, responded.
“Republicans learned their lesson,” said Brett Doster, a Republican consultant who worked for Bush. “It doesn’t matter if we get legislative and executive power if the courts undo everything. So the courts did become a Republican rallying cry.”
Only after the election have many Democrats fully realized how their 2018 loss will change the political landscape beyond the next four years.
Republicans are poised to push an anti-abortion agenda, beginning this year with a bill that requires minors to get permission before an abortion. Previous state Supreme Courts have said this is a violation of the privacy clause in the state’s constitution, but the House and Senate passed the bill hoping to test that precedent.
DeSantis is on record backing a heartbeat bill, legislation that could ban an abortion earlier in the first trimester so that by the time many women realize they’re pregnant, it’ll be too late for them to choose. His latest picks for the Supreme Court were cheered on by the Florida Family Policy Council, a Christian organization that opposes abortion and gay marriage.
“Every issue we care about is on the line,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat.
The new state Supreme Court may also weigh in on the next centennial redistricting in 2022, the process that decides the legislative maps. Last decade, the Supreme Court threw out maps drawn by Republicans, saying they violated the Fair Districts amendment to the state constitution. Democrats and good government advocates are concerned the high court won’t side with them this time if Republicans draw rigged districts.
“We are always concerned about gerrymandering and redistricting,” said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters. “We did get that big Fair Districts win several years back and if we have to go there again, we will.”
Because they are so young, much is unknown about the legal philosophy of DeSantis’ latest appointees. Francis has not been a lawyer for 10 years, so she must wait until September to join the bench.
Couriel, an attorney with Miami firm Kobre & Kim, and Francis, a Palm Beach County circuit judge, are both members of the Federalist Society, an organization of conservative and libertarian lawyers who believe in an “originalist” judicial philosophy popularized by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. At it’s core, originalists believe laws should be interpreted as written on the page, while leaving other factors like judicial interpretation or legislative intent out of the equation.
DeSantis, an Ivy League lawyer, is also a member, and he has leaned heavily on the organization as he has molded the high court to match his own beliefs. All five of his judicial nominees come with Federalist Society’s blessing.