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List of Florida Supreme Court nominees includes previous DeSantis pick

Judge Renatha Francis is favored to replace retiring Justice Alan Lawson.
Judge Renatha Francis, left, during a news conference in May 2020 with Gov. Ron DeSantis. DeSantis' 2020 nomination of Francis to the state Supreme Court was blocked because she had not yet met the 10-year Bar membership requirement. DeSantis may appoint Francis to a new vacancy on the court.
Judge Renatha Francis, left, during a news conference in May 2020 with Gov. Ron DeSantis. DeSantis' 2020 nomination of Francis to the state Supreme Court was blocked because she had not yet met the 10-year Bar membership requirement. DeSantis may appoint Francis to a new vacancy on the court. [ CARL JUSTE | Miami Herald ]
Published Jun. 13

The panel responsible for nominating Florida’s Supreme Court justices submitted a list of six candidates to Gov. Ron DeSantis for review on Monday — including a former DeSantis nominee widely viewed as a favorite for the appointment.

The list, submitted by the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, winnowed down a field of 17 applicants competing for the seat Justice Alan Lawson plans to vacate on Aug. 31.

Among the contenders is Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Renatha Francis, whom DeSantis planned to appoint in 2020 before the state Supreme Court ordered him to pick another candidate, as Francis had failed to meet a 10-year Bar membership requirement.

Other judges on the list include Adam Tanenbaum and Robert Long, both judges on the 1st District Court of Appeal; Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Anne-Leigh Gaylord Moe; 5th District Court of Appeal Judge Meredith Sasso; and Denise Harle, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom.

A news release from the governor’s office said DeSantis “will make his selection based upon the merit and judicial philosophy of the candidates presented” and that he looks forward to making a selection in the coming weeks.

Francis’ appointment would help maintain the conservative majority DeSantis has strengthened in the seven-member court during his term. She would become the first Jamaican-American justice in the state’s history, and would be the only Black justice on a court that has faced criticism for lacking diversity. Francis is the only Black candidate among the six names submitted to the governor Monday.

Related: 17 hopefuls vie for Florida Supreme Court opening

During her hearing with the Judicial Nominating Commission on Jun. 13, Francis touted her increased experience and community involvement in the two-and-a-half years since her previous nomination.

She also reaffirmed her “textualist” approach to the law — a judicial philosophy championed by conservatives like DeSantis that emphasizes strict adherence to the original meaning of a legal text, like the state constitution. That framework has been embraced by conservative members of Florida’s Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court.

Francis is a member of The Federalist Society, a national society of conservative lawyers and judges that advocates for a textualist approach and seeks to advance textualist judges to key posts.

In her hearing, Francis said she wants to “preserve and protect the freedoms” of Floridians, and that she believes “the way that we do that is by adhering to textualism, originalism, which best protects, I think, the founding principles of our country.”

She also said she wouldn’t be reluctant to rule against precedent if she believes a previous Supreme Court decision wasn’t faithful to the text at hand.

“If it was wrongly decided, if it’s clearly erroneous, I think you have an obligation to revisit that,” Francis said.

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DeSantis in May 2020 announced he was choosing Francis and Justice John Couriel to fill two vacancies on the court. While Couriel’s appointment went through, state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, asked the state Supreme Court to order that DeSantis pick another judge in place of Francis, as she hadn’t reached 10 years of membership of the Florida Bar — a requirement for justices. Francis would reach that milestone on Sept. 24, 2020.

DeSantis said Francis would not be sworn in until she met the requirement, but the Supreme Court unanimously found the governor in violation of the state constitution and ordered he pick another candidate from the Judicial Nominating Commission’s list.

During Saturday’s hearing, one of the commissioners, Jesse Panuccio, called the back-and-forth over Francis’ appointment “a disgrace.”

“We could disagree about the law or not,” said Panuccio, a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner LLP and former general counsel for Republican Sen. Rick Scott during his tenure as Florida governor. “But during the course of that, I think we saw some elected officials and people in the public do and say some very irresponsible things that dishonored their office and dishonored the judiciary.”

If appointed as a justice, Francis said she would like to see the court do a better job at informing the public about its role.

“I think it’s not a stretch to say that our society is deeply divided and the confidence in our institutions, including our court system, is being reduced,” Francis said, noting that better communication “would go a long way in restoring some of that loss of public trust in the judicial branch.”

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