DeSantis names Central Florida woman as next Supreme Court justice after legal standoff

DeSantis named Judge Jamie R. Grosshans to the state’s highest court after the governor pulled all the political stops to defend his first choice, Palm Beach County Judge Renatha Francis.
Judge Jamie R. Grosshans
Published Sep. 14, 2020|Updated Sep. 14, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — After blowing past another deadline and drawing a third court order to replace a judge on the Florida Supreme Court, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday appointed Judge Jamie R. Grosshans of Winter Garden to the state’s highest court.

The announcement came after DeSantis pulled all the political stops to defend his first choice, Palm Beach County Judge Renatha Francis. He announced that after the Florida Supreme Court rejected her as ineligible, he asked President Donald Trump to appoint her to the federal bench.

"I did not feel that she had been treated very well throughout this process, and so I picked up the phone and I called the president of the United States,'' DeSantis said at a late Monday news conference in which he took no questions. “The president was very receptive to that. All I can say is that that is actively under consideration.”

Related: Florida Supreme Court rules against DeSantis, rejecting his appointment

Grosshans, 41, was appointed to the Fifth District Court of Appeal in 2018 by former Gov. Rick Scott. Prior to her appointment to the appellate court, she served as an Orange County Court judge in the Ninth Judicial Circuit of Florida, where she presided over criminal and civil matters.

Her appointment, however, and Francis' rejection means the high court will be without a Black justice for the first time in nearly 40 years.

DeSantis on Friday was ordered to fill the vacancy on the court after the justices unanimously ruled he had overstepped his authority when he appointed Francis to fill one of two vacancies on the high court bench. The court concluded that Francis was not eligible to serve because she did not meet the constitutional requirement of being a member of The Florida Bar for 10 years when she was appointed.

But rather than issue a writ of mandamus, a legal term that means the public official has no discretion and is compelled to comply with the law, the court instead said it trusted the governor to follow the order and make the appointment by the time required.

At 10:28 a.m. Monday, DeSantis sent out a cryptic tweet that said: “Today, I’ll be making an announcement about Judge Renatha Francis and the future of the Florida Supreme Court. Stay tuned.”

Supreme Court issues another order

By 2:45 p.m., he had missed the noon deadline, so the court lowered the legal boom.

"Trusting that the Governor would fully comply with the order, and consistent with our traditional practice, the Court withheld issuance of the writ of mandamus,'' the court wrote in a four-page order signed by five justices.

“The deadline has now passed. It appearing that the Governor has yet to comply, we hereby issue the writ of mandamus and order the Governor immediately to comply with the Court’s order of September 11 and to certify his compliance to the Court by 5:00 p.m. today.”

Justice John Couriel, who had been appointed in May by DeSantis, along with Francis to fill two vacancies on the court, recused himself from the rulings. Another of the governor’s appointees, Justice Carlos G. Muñiz, wrote the first opinion by the court and has agreed with all unanimous rulings since.

At 3:48 p.m., the governor called a 5 p.m. press conference in the Capitol and just before the deadline fell again, his lawyers filed a “notice of compliance” indicating he would make a public announcement of his new appointment “around 5 p.m.”

The back-and-forth between the two branches of government, both comprised of conservatives, took some legal observers by surprise.

"For well over 200 years, our system has depended on the branches respecting one another when exercising their lawful powers,'' said Bryan Gowdy, a Jacksonville appellate lawyer from the firm Creed & Gowdy. “The unanimous court, including one justice appointed by the governor, are exercising their lawful power to make the appointment and he has disregarded it. If I ever had a client that did not follow the judges' order, they would be held in contempt.”

The furor over Francis began when state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat from Windemere, filed a lawsuit in July accusing the governor of violating the Constitution by appointing a candidate to the state’s highest court who wasn’t yet eligible.

Selection of Francis

Francis, 42, was born in Jamaica, and the governor touted the fact she would bring diversity to the court as the only woman and the first Black justice since Peggy Quince retired last year.

She was one of nine finalists, and the only one who is Black, selected for two Supreme Court vacancies from a field of 32 candidates that included six other Black lawyers and judges chosen by the Judicial Nominating Commission, which the governor controls.

Renatha Francis.
Renatha Francis. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]

DeSantis first asked the court to reconsider the ruling, but the court rejected that request and, in a second unanimous ruling, allowed Thompson to amend her lawsuit to recommend a remedy for the governor to choose another candidate.

Last week, DeSantis signaled that he wanted to continue to fight. He assembled a group of Francis supporters, all Black Democratic leaders of Caribbean-American heritage, to appear with him at a Miramar news conference to assail the ruling. It was a divisive move that divided members of the Legislative Black Caucus

The governor then filed another appeal, asking the court to conduct oral arguments, a tactic that could have delayed the case long enough to extend past the Sept. 24 date on which Francis would become eligible. The court rejected it again.

First Francis, then Grosshans

But Monday, Francis received top billing at the news conference announcing Grosshans' appointment. Francis, who was accompanied by her family, spoke of her working-class upbringing and how she was “absolutely floored” that DeSantis had asked the president to make her a federal judge.

"Stuff like this doesn’t happen to a small island girl immigrant, who came here, you know, just hoping to get a piece of the American dream,'' she said. Then she brought up her allegiance to the textualist judicial philosophy, which attempts to adhere to the plain words of the legal text. DeSantis has promised to appoint judges who agree with textualist judicial philosophy to the court, and the court applied that philosophy when it rejected Francis as unqualified.

If nominated, she said, “I can promise you that I will faithfully adhere to the text of the Constitution.”

DeSantis introduced Grosshans as a “working mom” with children ages 11, 9 and 4 with a “great breadth of experience in her private practice.”

In her remarks, Grosshans also signaled her allegiance to the court’s conservative wing, quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who said that “the Constitution tasks the political branches, not the judiciary, with developing the laws that govern our society.”

She said that as the fifth woman to serve on the state’s highest court she “stand[s] on the shoulders of champions who have fought for equality and the right of women to lend their voices to the leadership of this great state.”

Grosshans is a graduate of the University of Mississippi School of Law and has clerked for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Mississippi. She served as an Assistant State Attorney for Orange County and later entered private practice, founding her own law firm where she focused on family law and criminal defense matters for nearly 10 years.

Grosshans taught hospitality law at Valencia College for seven years. She is a member of the Orange County Bar, the Orlando Christian Legal Society, the Central Florida Association of Women Lawyers, and the George C. Young Inns of Court.

Thompson, who filed the lawsuit, said DeSantis and his Judicial Nominating Commission should be blamed for the court’s lack of racial diversity. However, she said the governor correctly remedied his illegal appointment of Francis on Monday.

"I am heartened by the fact that we will have a capable and competent jurist on the Florida Supreme Court, and I do want to extend my congratulations to Judge Jamie Grosshans,'' she said.

Court challenges over right to life, desegregation

There is little historical precedence for the kind of defiance DeSantis displayed against the court but there are some examples of governors attempting to sidestep court rulings in the past.

In 1970, then-Gov. Claude Kirk was held in contempt by U.S. District Judge Ben Krentzman for attempting to frustrate Krentzman’s order to desegregate Manatee County Schools and for refusing to show up in court. The judge ordered Kirk to pay $10,000 per day, unless he stopping interfering with the court’s orders. Faced with the fine, Kirk backed down, and the desegregation of the Manatee County public schools began.

"To see a governor disregard an order of the court is most disheartening,'' Gowdy said. “This is a standoff, a constitutional crisis.”'

In 2005, then-Gov. Jeb Bush tried and failed to use the power of his office to attempt to overrule a Florida Supreme Court decision overturning Terri’s law, passed by a Republican Legislature in an emergency session, that allowed the governor to order the resumption of tube-feeding of comatose Terri Schiavo, against the wishes of her husband. The Florida Supreme Court, which included three of Bush’s appointees, issued a unanimous ruling that the law was unconstitutional.

The absence of a Black candidate on the list spawned calls for reform from the 29-member Legislative Black Caucus. Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, called for members of the Judicial Nominating Commission to resign and has filed legislation to end the governor’s control of the Judicial Nominating Commission.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporters Ana Ceballos and Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.