Francis ceremonially sworn in as a justice of the Florida Supreme Court
Looking out into a sea of colleagues, friends, and family that packed the Florida Supreme Court October 18 for her ceremonial investiture, Justice Renatha Francis said the “big, beautiful crowd” filled her heart.
“I would not be where I am or who I am without each and every one of you,” said Francis, the state’s 92nd justice, who grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, the daughter of a single mother.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, before presenting the new justice’s credentials to the court, told those assembled — including Senate President Kathleen Passidomo and Speaker Paul Renner — he was proud to honor a justice whose path to the Supreme Court was the road less traveled.
Before immigrating from the Caribbean to Florida, Francis was a small business owner operating a bar and trucking company while she attended college fulltime in her native Jamaica while also being the primary caregiver for her younger sibling.
“I don’t know how many other Supreme Court justices in all 50 states would have a similar story,” DeSantis said.
Francis received her bachelor’s degree from the University of The West Indies and her Juris Doctorate from Florida Coastal School of Law in 2010. She served as a 15th Circuit judge and a Miami-Dade County judge before taking her seat on the high court on September 1, 2022. She also clerked at the First District Court of Appeal for 6 ½ years before going into private practice.
This is Francis’ second appointment to the Supreme Court. DeSantis selected her for an opening in 2020, but it was determined she did not meet the qualifications to become a justice because at the time of her nomination, she fell just shy of the 10 years of Florida Bar membership required to become a justice. Given a second opportunity, the governor appointed her again last year.
Rosalyn Destinie Baker Sutton, president of the Sheree D. Cunningham Black Women Lawyers Association, an organization Francis is a charter member of, said the justice’s journey is “the living embodiment” of the American dream.
“Today, we gather not only to witness the formal investiture of a Florida Supreme Court justice, but also to celebrate a remarkable individual who truly reflects the very essence of our nation’s ideals,” Sutton said. “Francis has not only excelled in the legal realm but has done so against the backdrop of an inspiring story and narrative of resilience. It’s hard work, good old-fashioned grit, and the pursuit of the American dream.”
Growing up, Francis said her mom was her hero.
“She did everything for her children including, ultimately, leaving — making one of the most difficult decisions to leave them to ensure that they had a better life,” Francis said. “It was a journey that landed her here in this ‘Shining City on the Hill.’”
Francis said her mom, Hyacinth, also believed a good education could transform a life and made sure her children received one, “even though her own dreams of a formal education were not realized.”
“She struggled as a single mom, financially at times, but I never thought of us as anything other than rich because she loved and made sure we knew it,” Francis said. “Whether it was coming home to our favorite dinner on the stove or sitting with us to do homework, taking us to the zoo, or just laughing with us around the dinner table when we told funny stories, which, in hindsight, were not that funny.”
As the first Caribbean-American, second Black female, and only the sixth woman to sit on the Florida Supreme Court since statehood in 1845, Francis said the significance of these trail blazing roles is not lost on her and being raised outside the United States made her realize “what a treasure we have in our republican form of government.”
“It is worth defending, it is worth protecting and our role as a court in this process is to make sure that we uphold the structural constraints of government action to protect liberty — confining what we do to apply what words meant to the people at the time when the law was passed,” Francis said. “We don’t get to put gloss on it, encroaching where we have no authority to do so, violating separation of powers in the process.”
Gov. DeSantis said Francis, as an immigrant to the United States, developed a strong appreciation for America’s founding principles.
“She became a very, very stalwart defender on interpreting the constitution the way it was originally understood to apply, understanding the checks and balances, understanding the separation of powers,” DeSantis said. “So, I think her rise in the legal ranks is really a powerful story.”
Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz praised his colleague.
“Speaking for our entire court, I can say we consider it a great blessing and privilege to serve with Justice Francis,” Muñiz said. “We benefit from her intellective insight and we deeply admire her character and resilience.”
Florida Bar President Scott Westheimer congratulated Francis on what he called an historic day and reminded the justice that she is now “one of society’s most important public servants” as a steward of one the state’s independent branches of government.
“The Bar and its members are here to assist you and help you in all of your endeavors,” said Westheimer, before presenting Francis a Bible, continuing the Bar’s tradition of presenting a Bible or appropriate inscribed text to each new justice.
Grasford W. Smith, a friend, fellow Jamaican-American, and president of the Palm Beach County Bar Association, said Francis is devoted to her family as much as she is to her profession and said: “God has placed you in a position to have influence over the lives of millions of people.”
Many of those who spoke at the ceremony remembered fondly Francis’ husband, Phillip Fender, who passed away in November of 2022, shortly after she joined the court.
“My husband is not here today,” Francis said, wiping away tears. But he would have wanted to be and was always her “biggest supporter.”
“His first reaction to anything I thought about doing was let’s do it,” Francis said. “He thought big especially when I had doubts. And to him, I could do anything.”
That, she said, is what keeps her moving forward.
“He wanted this for me and I am eternally grateful that although for only two months, he got to see it realized.”
But Justice Francis says the greatest gift her husband gave her are her two young sons, Josh, 6, and Matt, 3.
“Every single day I thank God that he sent the two of you to me, that I get to be your mom,” Francis said to her children sitting a few feet away in the well. “And I’m sorry, sometimes your mom has to leave you as part of her job. I know it is a lot for you because you just have mom, but I promise to always come back home to you.”