DeSantis’ appointee to Florida Supreme Court belongs to Christian group using law to ‘spread the Gospel’
Judge Jamie Grosshans' background and affiliation with Christian-based organizations weren’t spelled out on her application, but were no surprise to the legal community that promoted her.
Judge Jamie Grosshans on Monday in Tallahassee as Gov. Ron DeSantis looks on. [ News Service of Florida ]
By Mary Ellen Klas and Kirby Wilson
Jamie R. Grosshans, the last-minute choice of Gov. Ron DeSantis to the Florida Supreme Court, is an anti-abortion defender who has been active in a number of Christian legal groups, including a powerful national organization whose mission is to “spread the Gospel by transforming the legal system.”
Grosshans, from the Orlando suburb of Winter Garden, was named Florida’s seventh justice Monday, filling the vacancy created last year when President Trump named two of DeSantis' previous appointees, Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
This was the second time in Grosshans' meteoric rise as a judge that she became a finalist for the state’s highest court. She first applied in December 2018, when there were three vacancies on the court, but DeSantis chose Lagoa, Luck and Carlos G. Muñiz instead.
Both times Grosshans applied to the state’s high court, she left out some details on her application: specifically her membership in the Alliance Defending Freedom, her work as a Blackstone Fellow, a prestigious but secretive national award that trains rising star lawyers in the conservative teachings of the Alliance Defending Freedom, and her 2011 work with Orlando attorney John Stemberger to prevent a young woman from having an abortion.
The Alliance Defending Freedom is a national organization that, according to its website “exists to keep the doors open for the Gospel by advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, freedom of speech, and marriage and family.”
It trains lawyers and funds cases on abortion, religion, tuition tax credits, and LGBTQ issues. Notably, the group represented the petitioner in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case where a Colorado baker refused to serve a gay couple, and the petitioner in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the birth control mandate in employee-funded health plans was unconstitutional.
Its web site declares: “Marriage has always been a union between one man and one woman” and, “Opponents of marriage will not stop at removing the foundation of civilization.”
Grosshans' background and affiliation with the Christian-based organizations may not have been spelled out on her application, but were no surprise to the legal community that promoted her, said William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, an organization that advocates for tort reform.
"Judge Grosshans is known as a member of the school-choice, home-school, pro-life community and is thought of very highly in those communities,'' he said.
Omissions from applications
Grosshans was first appointed to be a county judge by then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2017. Her husband, Joshua Grosshans, was a member of the Judicial Nominating Commission that nominated her. A year later, Scott named her to the Fifth District Court of Appeal and within months she had assembled her first application to the Florida Supreme Court.
Grosshans, 41, landed on the shortlist for DeSantis twice, but was passed over last year and again this year when he named Renatha Francis and John Couriel in May to replace Luck and Lagoa. Only when the court declared Francis ineligible did Grosshans catapult to the position she coveted.
According to both applications obtained by the Times/Herald, Grosshans omitted her association with the powerful Alliance Defending Freedom and its prestigious fellowship.
When the Judicial Nominating Commission application asked Grosshans to "list all Bar associations and professional societies of which you are a member,'' Grosshans did not list the Alliance or the Blackstone Legal Fellowship program in her answer.
But on the web page of her law firm in 2017, Plant Street Law, she touted the affiliation: “She is a Blackstone Fellow with the Alliance Defense Fund, serves on the Board of Directors for the Central Florida Christian Legal Society, and is an active member of her community.”
The application also asked: “Do you now or have you ever belonged to any club or organization that in practice or policy restricts (or restricted during the time of your membership) its membership on the basis of race, religion, national origin or sex?”
She did not mention the Alliance Defense Fund but only said: “I am a member of the First Baptist Church of Winter Garden and the Christian Legal Society. Both of these organizations require assent to a statement of faith containing basic tenants of the Christian faith. I will remain a member of both of these organizations.”
Grosshan’s father-in-law, Tim Grosshans, is the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Winter Garden. He was U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s guest at the 2018 State of the Union address.
The church’s web site reads: “We encourage lifelong commitments to marriage between one man and one woman; we support the ongoing spiritual nurture of the family; and, we are committed to honoring the priority of family time through our ministries and activities. (Matthew 19:5-6; Ephesians 5:22-6:4)”
Ties to Christian legal groups
According to the Alliance Defense Fund’s promotional material, the national organization’s mission is “to keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel by transforming the legal system.”
The group’s federal 990 tax form says: “The Blackstone Legal Fellowship equips these students to adhere to the practice of their faith in the legal profession, an arena often hostile to Christianity.”
It has also stated that the goal of the program is “to train a new generation of lawyers who will rise to positions of influence and leadership as legal scholars, litigators, judges — perhaps even Supreme Court Justices — who will work to ensure that justice is carried out in America’s courtrooms.” The Alliance Defense Fund conceals the names of its fellows.
Grosshans and her husband also performed legal work as an “allied attorney” for Alliance Defense Fund’s Operation Outcry in Orlando, an organization that intervenes with young women to stop abortions.
According to a since-deleted, but cached page from the Alliance Defending Freedom’s website, one of the group’s cited success stories from April 2011 states that: “John Stemberger (Law Offices of John Stemberger, PA), Jamie R. Grosshans (The Grosshans Group, P.L.) and Joshua D. Grosshans (Mateer Harbert). John provided Jamie and Josh the support they needed to, in turn, assist Operation Outcry in Orlando, FL in helping a 16-year-old girl whose parents were trying to force her into having an abortion.”
According to its website,"Operation Outcry is a ministry of The Justice Foundation that seeks to end the pain of abortion in America and around the world by mobilizing women and men hurt by abortion who share their true stories of the devastating effects of abortion."
Reached at his Orlando law office, Joshua Grosshans said he was still processing the appointment and didn’t want to comment. Stemberger also said he wanted to refrain from commenting.
God works ‘through us’
According to her application, Grosshans serves on the board of directors for the Central Florida Christian Legal Society and is an officer in the Central Florida Federalist Society.
In 2016, she wrote an article for Christian Lawyer magazine and disclosed that she has done pro bono legal work for crisis pregnancy centers, often faith-based organizations that offer women pregnancy advice and counsel against abortion.
“As attorneys, it’s easy to feel like we are not on the mission field in the traditional sense,” Grosshans wrote in the magazine. "But we have a unique calling. The mission field comes to us. The mission field hires us. As the Apostle Paul encourages, ‘We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.’ "
Politics and precedent
Given Grosshans' strong personal views and history of opposing abortion, can she be impartial?
Stacy Salmon, chief assistant state attorney for the 18th Judicial Circuit in Seminole and Brevard counties said “based on my experience, I have no reason to doubt that she can.”
Salmon had a case in which she was prosecuting four police officers for providing false statements during the course of an investigation, and Grosshans was the presiding judge.
"She had a mastery of the case facts. She clearly had reviewed the case files. She was well versed in the law. She had a handle on the evidence code and she clearly had done her homework,'' Salmon said, noting they got one conviction, one plea and one diversion out of the four. Grosshans “was impartial with every decision.”
Roger Gannam, assistant vice president of legal affairs at the Liberty Counsel which litigates on behalf of pro-life and against same-sex marriage, said that “every judge has a world view.”
"It’s no secret Judge Grosshans was a Christian lawyer before she was a judge. That shouldn’t give anyone concern about her impartiality,'' he said. “The desire we should have is that she apply the law faithfully, preserve the separation of powers and try not to make new law or legislate from the bench.”
Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican who has championed several anti-abortion bills, said she was ‘excited" to have someone who believed in the strict interpretation of the Constitution on the court. Asked about the potential gaps on Grosshans’ application, Stargel said she hopes Grosshans did not omit anything that should have been included.
Other organizations were not as bullish about the new justice.
Laura Goodhue, the vice president for public policy at Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida, called some of Grosshans' past associations “concerning.”
And Nadine Smith, the executive director of Equality Florida, the state’s largest advocacy group for the LGBTQ community, said her organization will watch the new Supreme Court to make sure it “upholds the constitutional principles that have been foundational to LGBTQ equality.”
Included in those principles, Smith noted, is Section 23 of the Florida Constitution, the “right of privacy,” which allows for freedom from governmental intrusion into one’s private life.
Florida abortion rights advocates have long pointed to the privacy section as evidence that access to abortion is guaranteed under state law. In Roe v. Wade, 1973′s landmark federal abortion rights case, the United States Supreme Court found that the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to privacy, nullifying many state criminal penalties associated with abortion.
Florida conservatives have long argued that the privacy clause in the state Constitution shouldn’t apply to abortion. The new Supreme Court, with its three new justices appointed by DeSantis, who is conservative and anti-abortion, has the power to reshape abortion precedent for generations.
Large, of the Florida Justice Institute, said it is ironic is that Grosshans also comes from the legislative district represented by Rep. Geraldine Thompson, the Windermere Democrat whose successful legal challenge to DeSantis' first choice cleared the way for Grosshans to join the bench.
"It’s interesting that her attributes seem so different than what Thompson has been advocating for all these years,'' Large said.
Thompson said she has never met Grosshans and was not aware she had worked with Stemberger, the Orlando attorney. But she was hoping Grosshans' short time working for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Mississippi “will give her sensitivity in this age of unrest with regard to marginalized people.”
As for ushering in a conservative court, Thompson said she was resigned to the fact that no matter who DeSantis picked it would yield this result.
"Clearly there is an agenda to reshape the judiciary,'' she said. “So you have people with these conservative views, and some very regressive views, with regard to the rights of women.”