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Jamaican is first black woman appointed by Governor DeSantis to Florida Supreme Court

Renatha Francis

On August 5, the day before Jamaica marked its 60th anniversary of Independence, yet another Jamaican was proudly flying the black, green and gold, becoming the first black woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Florida (SCOF) by Governor Ron DeSantis.

St Andrew-born St Hugh’s High School old girl Judge Renatha Francis got the nod the second time round after the Florida governor’s initial attempt in 2020 to place her on the court was derailed by a ruling by the same court that she did not qualify.

Membership on the SCOF, Florida’s highest court, can only come after 10 years on the Florida bar, and although Francis’s first appointment was a mere one month shy, she was disqualified based on a challenge from State Representative Geraldine Thompson, a black Democrat, that she had not met the 10-year stipulation.

DeSantis, a rising star in the Grand Old Party (GOP), noted that Francis was late to enter the legal profession, having operated businesses including a trucking company before enrolling in the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, according to the Florida Phoenix.

“She’s had other careers before she got into law, and so I actually thought that was a good thing to take someone that came from a different background rather than someone that was born into, like, a legal family,” the news outlet quoted DeSantis as saying.

CBS said Francis, at the press conference announcing her appointment, “brandished her (conservative) Federalist Society credentials on Friday [August 5] with a quote from Alexander Hamilton’s admonition in the Federalist Papers that judges ‘exercise neither force nor will, but merely judgment’.

“We apply the law as written. This timeless principle of civil society not only promotes uniformity, predictability, it’s essential to preserving liberty. It restrains arbitrariness. It restrains abuses of power. And if history teaches us anything, it’s that as simple and enduring as this principle is, it’s evaded the vast majority of human history until this American experiment,” Francis said.

Thompson, in a written comment on the appointment, wondered: “Will Judge Francis be so beholden to the governor that she will fail to exercise her independence when issues such as the governor’s racially and politically gerrymandered redistricting maps, open gun carry, abortion, and other issues come before the court? That’s the concern now.”

However, William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, which lobbies to limit access to the courts, praised the appointment, saying in a written statement reported by the Florida Phoenix:

“The governor’s appointment of Renatha Francis as the 92nd justice continues his mission of appointing justices with a proven record of recognising the court’s proper role as the interpreter of our laws, not the author.

“Justice Francis is also only the second African-American woman appointed to the Florida Supreme Court, and we further applaud Governor DeSantis for his continuing commitment to a court that can draw on a rich diversity of life experience.”

The Florida Phoenix said that as no questions were taken at the press conference, reporters did not get to ask about reports in the Florida Bulldog, an investigative news website, that Francis on her Supreme Court application failed to report that she’d been the subject of ethics complaints, as she was required to do. The publication said that as many as five had been lodged alleging she’d been unfair to litigants.

The Jamaican trailblazer who is only the second black woman to be appointed to the court, although the first by DeSantis, migrated from Jamaica in 2004 after graduating from The University of the West Indies.

After law school, she worked for the First District Court of Appeal, Shutts & Bowen, LLP in Miami in the Class Action and Mass Litigation Practice Group, then as County Court and Circuit Court judge in Miami-Dade, Florida, and a Circuit Court judge in Palm Beach County, Florida, before her current appointment to the SCOF in 2022.

The FSC, among other mandatory powers, reviews final orders imposing death sentences; district court decisions declaring a state statute or provision of the state constitution invalid; bond validations, and certain orders of the Public Service Commission on utility rates and services.

In addition, the court may review certain categories of judgments, decisions, and questions of law certified to it by the district courts of appeal and federal appellate courts, and provide advisory opinions to the governor on questions relating to the constitutional duties and powers of that office.

Importantly, it has exclusive authority to regulate the admission and discipline of lawyers in Florida, and has the responsibility to discipline and remove judicial officers found to have violated ethical standards.

Justice Renatha Francis is married to Phil Fender with two boys, ages two and five.