After delaying his decision for months in the face of the coronavirus crisis, Gov. Ron DeSantis has selected two new picks to fill Florida Supreme Court vacancies.
John Couriel, an attorney with the Miami-based firm Kobre & Kim, and Renatha Francis, a judge on the 15th Judicial Circuit in Palm Beach County, will round out the seven seats on the bench. The Governor chose the two from a pool of nine nominees selected by the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC).
Speaking at the Miami-Dade Public Library Tuesday, the Governor touted the three Hispanics and two women he has appointed to the court. And he highlighted South Florida’s representation on his shortlists to fill the state’s courts.
“Every time we’re doing this, we have so many great candidates coming out of Southern Florida,” he said.
Francis, a Jamaican-born immigrant who took up law as a second career after operating a bar and trucking company, will be the first Caribbean-American to serve the court. She highlighted the people’s liberty and the role a limited court plays in protecting that liberty.
“If history teaches us anything, it’s that as simple and enduring as this principle is, it’s evaded the vast majority of humanity until this American experiment,” Francis said. “In our great country and our great state, we’re governed by the rule of law, not of men.”
Francis won’t take up her position until September. Per the Florida Constitution, justices must have been members of the Florida Bar for 10 years, which Francis won’t be until Sept. 24, 2020, the day her term begins.
But DeSantis, calling her story inspirational, said she could be the first Caribbean American on any state supreme court, as his office’s research so far has indicated. He also compared her Constitutional understanding to that of Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father, the first U.S. Treasury Secretary and an immigrant from the British West Indies.
“Hamilton articulated what Judge Francis deeply understands, that the judiciary lacks authority to indulge its legislative preferences, that courts cannot exercise its personal will but merely apply a legal judgement,” DeSantis added. “And Judge Francis has demonstrated a strong commitment to the rule of law as well as to the judicial craft.”
Francis received her bachelor’s from the University of The West Indies and her law degree from Florida Coastal Law School. She also served as an attorney for the 1st District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee from 2011 to 2017.
Couriel — who received recommendations from Arkansas U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton and former Gov. Jeb Bush — also hit on his Caribbean roots and voiced his appreciation for the justice, freedom and life the United States and Florida provided for his family.
“There is no better way to be grateful for something than to share it, and so today in committing myself to this work, I also give thanks to the people I am blessed to serve, with whom I am honored to share my best efforts,” he said.
Couriel is a Harvard college and law school graduate and was an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida before taking up his private practice.
“He is giving up a lot of money to be able to serve, and I think that that says a lot about John, about his character and about how important the rule of law is that he’d be willing to do it,” the Governor said.
DeSantis traced Couriel’s legal understanding to his parents’ background. Both escaped the Fidel Castro regime in 1961, which the Governor said helped emphasize the importance of the rule of law in the new appointee.
“He distinctly understands the proper role of the judiciary, he understands the structural limitations in the Constitution, all those things that you would want, but I think because he’s had such extensive business experience, he’s bringing a perspective on the court that may not be there in abundance right now,” he said.
In selecting Couriel and Francis, DeSantis tapped two justices who share his conservative views on the limited role of the courts, after a liberal-leaning bloc for years thwarted Republican lawmakers and governors on numerous high-profile policy fronts.
William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, lauded DeSantis for the two appointments.
“The Governor’s appointments of John Couriel and Renatha Francis as the 90th and 91st Justices continue his mission to restore the court to it proper role as the interpreter of our laws, not the author.”
In November, the U.S. Senate confirmed Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Both, also South Floridians, were appointed by DeSantis to the Florida Supreme Court in 2019.
The Governor, at the time, credited President Donald Trump with “great judgment” for picking them for the higher court while crediting Lagoa and Luck with “demonstrated understanding of the Constitution and the appropriate role of the judiciary.” And on Friday, he highlighted their promotions as a testament to the strength of those picks.
“We appreciated their service,” DeSantis said. “It was effective, but brief, but because it was so effective, they were promoted by the President.”
With the impending COVID-19 pandemic, DeSantis delayed in March his 60-day deadline to appoint justices despite questions from the legal community. That month, he said he had not had time to read all of the candidates’ opinions or other writings to prepare to make a proper decision given the urgency of the coronavirus crisis.
“I was not in a position to spend hours and hours reading these opinions and other writing given all that we were dealing with at the time,” he said Tuesday. “But particularly over the last several days, I’ve had a little bit more time to do it over the weekend.”
The Florida Constitution says the Governor was obligated to make the appointments 60 days after the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission certified a slate of nine nominees on Jan. 23.
But the Governor missed the March 23 deadline because of the coronavirus pandemic, he said. And in late March, DeSantis said he would make the appointment by May 1, a deadline he also missed.
The decision to push back his Supreme Court picks past the initial March 23 deadline appeared to be the first time a governor used a state of emergency to delay the selection of justices, Florida Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said at the time.
Adam Richardson, an appellate attorney in West Palm Beach, has repeatedly questioned the legality of DeSantis’ appointment delay.
“The governor handled the process poorly. He exceeded his constitutional authority when he delayed the appointments and never explained why he believed he could do that,” Richardson told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.
Richardson has also raised questions about Francis’ appointment to the Supreme Court given her status with the Florida Bar.
Francis has been on maternity leave, and DeSantis cited that as the reason for her “ascension to the court in September.” He did not mention that September is also the month when she’ll be constitutionally qualified.
Richardson said he does not believe DeSantis is allowed to wait out her eligibility and noted that her appointment could be challenged if a citizen or taxpayer files a challenge directly to the Florida Supreme Court.
Material from The News Service of Florida was used in this post.