Gov. DeSantis picks two Federalist Society members for state high court, including an African American woman who won’t be able to serve until September

Supreme Court
Empty courtroom of the Supreme Court of the United States. Credit U.S. Supreme Court website.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed a female immigrant from Jamaica and the son of Cuban exiles to fill two vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court.

Both appointees are affiliated with the libertarian-conservative Federalist Society, to which DeSantis has regularly turned for judicial candidates.

The appointees are:

John Couriel, 41, a litigator at Kobre & Kim, working in the Miami and Buenos Aires offices, where he specializes in international litigation and investigations, including work involving the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and civil racketeering claims.

Previously, he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami.

Renatha Francis, 42, a circuit court judge in the family and probate division in West Palm Beach who also has served as a county court and circuit court judge in Miami-Dade. She listed her ethnicity as black.

That would make her DeSantis’ first African American pick for the court.

She acknowledged in applying for the seat that she won’t be eligible to serve until September, when she will have belonged to the Florida Bar for the constitutionally mandated 10 years.

DeSantis acknowledged the point, noting that in the meantime Francis will be on maternity leave.

Both appointments drew praise, notwithstanding that the 10-year Bar membership is spelled out in the Florida Constitution.

The Florida Justice Reform Institute, which seeks limits on civil litigation, issued a written statement applauding DeSantis “for his thoughtful and decisive leadership as he continues to reshape the Florida Supreme Court,” saying they would “continue his mission to restore the court to it proper role as the interpreter of our laws, not the author.”

The Florida Family Policy Council argued of Francis that “both conservative and liberal legal scholars say that she can legally be appointed and not assume the office until September.” The state Legislative Black Caucus had endorsed the appointment.

However, West Palm Beach appellate lawyer Adam Richardson argued in an April 1 Slate article that the appointment would be unconstitutional. “The constitutionally significant event is the appointment, which is what fills the vacancy. How can a vacancy be filled if the appointee does not take office for a few months? It can’t,” he wrote.

DeSantis noted that of his five appointees two have been women and three Hispanic. Furthermore, “Judge Francis will be the first Caribbean-American to sit on the Florida Supreme Court. And she may be the first Caribbean American to sit on any state Supreme Court,” he said.

During a news conference in Miami, he compared her to Alexander Hamilton, another Caribbean immigrant who did rather well, and who helped to define American federalism.

“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 judgment,” the governor said.

Curiel, too, like other Cuban exiles and their children, “understand the importance of having a society based on the rule of law rather than based on the whim of an individual dictator,” DeSantis said.

The appointees were among nine candidates proposed by a judicial nominating commission on Jan. 23. DeSantis extended his 60-day window for making his choices, arguing that dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic took precedence — even though that deadline, too, is mandated by the Constitution.

The governor had already cemented conservative control of the state high court, following the forced retirement in early 2019 of three members of the court’s former liberal majority (including Peggy Quince, the only African-American serving at the time).

Two of his three initial picks — Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck — were confirmed by the U.S. Senate in November to seats on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, opening the vacancies DeSantis filled Tuesday.

The revamped court has already twice reversed precedents in death penalty jurisprudence established by the old court to make it easier to secure executions.

DeSantis tends to favor members of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies when appointing judges and the nominating commissions that screen candidates for the state courts. The organization promotes as an “originalist” or “textualist” approach to jurisprudence.

That tends to mean opposition to economic regulation, affirmative action, and marriage equality and support for states’ rights and an expansive reading of presidential power.

Regarding the new justices, Couriel as a prosecutor pursued wire- and health-care fraud and oversaw extraditions. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 2003. Earlier in his career, he worked as an associate attorney at Davis, Polk & Wardwell. He was first nominated to the state high court in 2018. He disclosed a net worth of $4 million.

Francis is a 2010 graduate of Florida Coastal Law School who opened her career as a law clerk and staff attorney at the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. She disclosed her net worth as about $65,000.

Both live with Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal’s judisdiction; DeSantis has to pick at least one of the new justices from the area to preserve the high court’s jurisdictional balance.

Francis described humble roots as the granddaughter of a small farmer who during her late teens and early 20s operated a bar and a trucking company while attending the University of the West Indies and serving as surrogate parent to a younger sibling.

In the United States, she worked for companies including West Corp., the telecommunications outfit.

She enrolled in Florida Coastal in 2007, graduating in 2010. The school is a for-profit institution located in Jacksonville that ranked among the bottom quarter of law schools in the U.S. News & World Report listings, which reflect factors including bar passage rate, student-to-faculty ratios, and placement of graduates in legal jobs.

The school is located in Jacksonville and claims a diversity index of nearly 50 percent for its student body. It emphasized practical legal training. According to a report by Inside Higher Education, its bar passage rate had declined below 50 percent several years ago but had improved to 70 percent by last year. It is attempting to convert to nonprofit status but needs the approval of the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools.

She made the honors list and her education credentials were enough to land her a clerkship with Judge Peter Webster of the 1st DCA, followed by staff positions with the court before she landed at the politically connected Shutts & Bowen law firm in 2017, before beginning her judicial career.

Francis has belonged to Federalist Society chapters in Tallahassee, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach County since 2015.

Couriel was once a political aspirant, running unsuccessfully as a Republican for the Florida Senate in 2012 and the House in 2016. He applied for appointment last year to the U.S. District Court in Miami and was nominated in 2018 for a seat on the Florida Supreme Court.

He’s been a member of the Federalist Society since 2000. He is a first-generation Cuban American, his parents having arrived separately in 1961. (is father was among 14,000 Cuban children air lifted into South Florida during Operation Pedro Pan.)

He began his legal career as a clerk to U.S. District Judge John Bates in Washington and spent nearly five years as an associate in the New York office of Davis Polk & Wardwell before moving to Miami to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Note: This article has been updated to include reaction and background information on the appointees.

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.