Rebuked by justices, DeSantis resorts to politics and race in defense of his Supreme Court appointee

Gov. Ron DeSantis, flanked by Renatha Francis and Black office holders, called upon Rep. Geraldine Thompson to drop her opposition to Francis as a Florida Supreme Court justice on Sept. 9, 2020. The court later ordered him to select a different justice. Source: Screenshot

Gov. Ron DeSantis lashed out Wednesday at a state lawmaker who’s attempting to block his appointment of Renatha Francis, who is Black, to the Florida Supreme Court.

The governor called the move “hypocritical” because the lawmaker — State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, who is Black — might keep Francis from becoming the court’s only Black justice.

The governor was joined during a news conference by other Black state lawmakers and local officials including Francis herself.

DeSantis earlier picked Francis for a seat on the high court, but the Supreme Court has already ruled that she is not qualified because she hadn’t been a member of the Florida Bar for the constitutionally mandated 10 years when DeSantis selected her in May.

But Wednesday, DeSantis diverted to issues of politics and race in trying defend his pick.

“The problem I have in this case is this particular [state] representative has been somebody that’s been very vocal about wanting to have a Black justice on the Florida Supreme Court,” DeSantis said.

“Well, guess what, the petition that she has filed right now would block a Black justice.”

Thompson, a Democrat from Orange County, did ask the court to consider diversity in deciding her lawsuit challenging Francis as unqualified for the court.

Thompson did not reply to a request for comment from the Phoenix, but told the Miami Herald-Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau she has no intention of withdrawing her case.

The plan has been for her to join the court after Sept. 24, when she will have met the requirement. However, the Supreme Court ruled that justices must be fully qualified at the time of their appointment.

The legal question now is what the court will do about that.

On Tuesday, the court ruled decisively against the governor again in ordering him to explain why it shouldn’t disqualify Francis and order him to pick a new justice from among the seven remaining candidates sent to him by a judicial nominating commission.

Although offering ethnic diversity, Francis also is a member of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, from which DeSantis (also a member) is populating the state’s courts.

DeSantis said he’s “not going to begrudge anyone” for taking legal action but noted that Thompson’s lawsuit could force him to pick among other nominees who are not Black.

The “lawsuit is so misguided” and “an insult to the Jamaican American community,” he said.

During the press conference, Francis highlighted her humble beginnings as a small business owner in Jamaica while raising a younger sibling and finishing school. She ultimately emigrated to South Florida, where she now runs a trial court in Palm Beach County.

“I’m grateful that I’ve had this once in a lifetime opportunity that a Black immigrant woman from a small island, with no famed family name or wealth, no inherent powerful connections, could potentially rise to the highest state court in one of the most important states, is a testament to just how great this country is,” she said.

Broward County Mayor Dale Holness, who also spoke, stressed the importance of having “diversity on the bench.”

“I’m calling on Rep. Thompson to withdraw her lawsuit opposing Judge Francis … and ensure that Judge Francis is selected,” Holness said.

“I’ve known Judge Francis for quite a while … so I know the character of this fine jurist. Judge Francis is very well qualified.”

It might not matter if Thompson withdraws her lawsuit: Jacksonville attorney Terry Bork filed a petition with the Supreme Court on Tuesday on behalf of Robert L. Burch Jr., described as a taxpayer from Fernandina Beach, raising roughly the same complaints as Thompson. His case would remain before the high court.

In a written statement Wednesday, Bork said his client doesn’t question Francis’ “general qualifications” for the seat.

“However, the Florida Constitution is clear that Judge Thompson does not satisfy the requirements for being a Supreme Court nominee because she has not been a Florida Bar member for 10 years,” he said.

“We realize that rejecting Judge Francis’ nomination to the Florida Supreme Court
will leave it without an African American Justice for the time being. But the blame
for that outcome rests squarely with the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nomination
Commission,” he added.

Phoenix deputy editor Michael Moline contributed to this report.

Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.