Gov. DeSantis picks three African American women among appointees to Miami-Dade trial courts

The historic Miami-Dade County Courthouse. Credit: Ebyabe via Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Ron DeSantis made seven appointments to the trial bench in Miami-Dade County Monday, including three African-American women – about 43 percent of the total for the day, well above the trend for the Republican governor.

Only two of the appointees are male – also a deviation from the governor’s norm.

Diversity on all levels of courts has been a concern, particularly for advocacy groups who have been seeking more blacks and women for the bench.

We’re still waiting to find out whether a judicial nominating commission will forward a similarly diverse field of candidates for two vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court. Or whether DeSantis will place an African American on the state’s highest court, which lacks any at present.

Joining the 11th Judicial Circuit Court are county court judges Ramiro Areces, Christina DiRaimondo, and Robert Watson. New to the Miami-Dade County Court are Elisabeth Espinosa, a litigation partner at Cole, Scott & Kissane; Julie Harris Nelson, a litigation partner with Roig Lawyers; Ayana Harris, an assistant federal public defender; and Miesha Darrough, special counsel in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami.

Five of the appointees are former state or federal prosecutors.

Gov. Ron DeSantis. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The nominees for the positions “were strong overall, but I think these seven were really strong, and I think that they’re going to do a good job for the people of South Florida,” the governor said during a news conference at the University of Miami School of Law.

“Ultimately, what we’re looking for with judges – obviously, aptitude, understanding the law, being smart, but being willing to apply the law faithfully, irrespective of political ideology or political considerations, and do it consistently and predictably. And I think all seven of these judges have what it takes to do it,” he said.

“What I really like is, they have a very diverse set of experiences in terms of their work in the legal profession,” DeSantis added.

Circuit courts tend to handle more serious cases, including felonies and civil trials in which more than $15,000 is at stake. Most of the 20 circuit courts in Florida hold jurisdiction over multiple counties, although the 11th Circuit covers Miami-Dade only.

Additionally, five intermediate appellate districts operate within the state, with the Supreme Court above them all.

The Supreme Court search panel has until Dec. 24 to submit candidates to the governor, who then will have 60 days to make his selections.

Because the Florida Constitution requires that each of the state’s five appellate districts must be represented on the high court, at least one of the new judges will need to reside in Miami-Dade or Monroe counties, which make up the 3rd Appellate District.

That’s where DeSantis found Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, whom he placed on the Supreme Court early in his term. They’ve since been elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

“So, I can’t tell you when, but there’s a good chance that we’ll end up down here” to announce an appointment, DeSantis said Monday. “But I shall return.”

Of course, nothing in the Constitution requires racial or gender representation on the Supreme Court, and aides to the governor have said he doesn’t consider demographics in making appointments, but this marks the first time in decades that no African American has served. Lagoa was the only woman on the court when she left for the federal court.

In practice, DeSantis’ bench appointments have run around 50-50 male to female, and African American appointments have run a few points under their 17 percent of the population. Hispanic appointees have run about 25 percent, roughly in line with their proportion of the population.

The conservative governor is affiliated with the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, the conservative-libertarian organization whose members have a hand in vetting judges for him.

DeSantis has promised to appoint conservative justices who’ll assign greater deference to the Legislature, which Republicans dominate. That means jurists more friendly to curbs on abortion rights, access to courts, state support for religious institutions, and other GOP priorities.

Of the appointees announced Monday, the Florida Phoenix identified Federalist affiliations for DiRaimondo, Watson and Nelson.