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Florida Supreme Court orders governor to pick new justice

Brendan Farrington
Associated Press

Tallahassee, Fla. – Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis must pick a new Supreme Court justice because the judge he picked to fill a high court vacancy is constitutionally ineligible to serve, the court said in an order issued Friday.

The Florida Supreme Court ordered DeSantis to appoint another judge by Monday, nullifying the appointment of Judge Renatha Francis. She would have been the first Caribbean-American justice to serve on the court.

But the state constitution requires that a justice be a member of the Florida Bar for at least 10 years, and Francis was four months shy when DeSantis appointed her in May. DeSantis acknowledged the shortfall at the time, but said she wouldn’t be sworn in until Sept. 24, the day she would meet the requirement.

In this May 26, 2020 file photo, Renatha Francis smiles speaks at a news conference in Miami.

“We’re all governed by the rule of law, including the governor of the state of Florida. He is not above the law, and the Supreme Court made that point very clear,” said Democratic state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, who petitioned the court to undo the appointment.

The Supreme Court said that DeSantis was required to name a constitutionally eligible new justice within 60 days of the resignation of former Justice Robert Luck.

“The Governor has not complied with the constitution’s clear commands,” the court said in its unanimous ruling.

DeSantis’s office said it is reviewing the decision before commenting on it.

DeSantis held a press conference Wednesday sharply criticizing Thompson for demanding he appoint a Black justice, and then suing to block his appointment of Francis, who would have been the court’s only Black justice.

Several Black Democratic elected officials joined DeSantis in support of Francis.

Thompson responded the next day, saying DeSantis only chose Francis because she shares his conservative ideology, not because he is trying to achieve racial diversity. And she said the governor has to follow the rules.

While DeSantis said Thompson’s challenge was politically motivated, Thompson said Friday that she acted alone and not in consultation with other Democratic lawmakers or the state party.

“My motivation was to protect the independence, the autonomy and the confidence that people have in our judiciary,” Thompson said. “I put my hand on the Bible and raised my hand to God and said I would protect and defend the constitution. I feel I that I had a responsibility to do that.”

Florida governors are required to fill vacancies from a list provided to them by the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. Friday’s ruling said that DeSantis must pick a new nominee from the original list, given to him earlier this year.

Francis operated a bar and trucking company in Jamaica before moving to the United States as an adult and working her way through law school. She is currently a circuit judge in Palm Beach County, and a former member of the Federalist Society.

In a ruling two weeks ago, the Supreme Court said DeSantis exceeded his authority by appointing a constitutionally ineligible nominee, but did not undo the appointment, saying Thompson’s suggested remedy wasn’t legally available.

Thompson had requested a new list of candidates for DeSantis to choose from, but the court said the proper solution would be to have him pick another candidate from the original list. She then amended her petition to fit the court’s ruling, resulting in Friday’s order.