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Francis, Couriel appointed to the Florida Supreme Court

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John Couriel and Renatha Francis/The Florida Channel

Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed South Florida residents Renatha Francis and John Couriel to the Florida Supreme Court at a May 26 press conference at the Miami-Dade Public Library.

Judge Renatha Francis and John Couriel were appointed May 26 by Gov. Ron DeSantis to become the newest justices of the Florida Supreme Court.

Surrounded by their spouses and children, donning face masks when they were not speaking at the podium, and keeping proper social distance, Francis and Couriel both said at a press conference at the Miami-Dade Public Library they were humbled by the appointment and eager to serve the people of Florida.

DeSantis noted that Francis immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica as an adult and Couriel is the son of Cuban immigrants who fled communism.

Gov. Ron DeSantisDeSantis, who has now made five appointments to the Supreme Court since taking office in early 2019, said both new justices respect the rule of law and understand the limitations placed on the judiciary by the constitution. Francis and Couriel replace Justices Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, who were appointed to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit shortly after joining the Florida Supreme Court.

“The Florida Bar is pleased to learn about Gov. DeSantis’ appointments of Judge Renatha Francis and attorney John Couriel to the Florida Supreme Court,” according to a statement from the Bar on behalf of President John Stewart, President-elect Dori Foster-Morales, and President-elect Designate Michael Tanner. “Both are excellent appointments, as evidenced by the recommendations of the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, and their diverse backgrounds and experience will contribute greatly to our highest court in its service to Floridians. The leaders of The Florida Bar look forward to working with both of them.”

DeSantis said the search to replace Luck and Lagoa began in earnest in December, but was delayed by the COVID-19 outbreak as he was not able to spend the time needed to properly vet the nominees “given all we were dealing with at the time.”

Francis comes to the Supreme Court from the 15th Circuit, a judgeship DeSantis appointed her to last year after she served as an 11th Circuit judge and county court judge in Miami-Dade County. DeSantis said she is the first Jamaican-American to sit on Florida’s Supreme Court and may well be the first Caribbean-American to sit on any state’s supreme court.

The governor said Francis reminded him of another great American from the Caribbean, Alexander Hamilton, who was raised in the British West Indies.

“He rose from obscure circumstances to be the greatest treasury secretary in American history, as well as one of the main authors of the Federalist Papers,” DeSantis said. “And Hamilton articulated what Judge Francis deeply understands; that the judiciary lacks authority to indulge its legislative preferences. The courts cannot exercise its personal will, but merely apply a legal judgment. And Judge Francis has demonstrated a strong commitment to the rule of law.”

“I’m incredibly honored and humbled by the appointment and the confidence you have shown by giving me this tremendous opportunity to serve the people of our great state,” said Francis, noting, “I am truly the epitome of the American dream.”

She said she grew up in Jamaica the daughter of a single mother who never finished high school and who herself was “only a small farmer’s daughter.”

“But none of that mattered because what my mom had and what she imparted to her two daughters was grit, determination, and hard work,” Francis said. “Those values inculcated early and often were reflected in me when I began my first profession…as a small business owner in my late teens and early 20s. For those of you who are curious, I operated a bar and trucking company. I did that for about five years. I did that while attending college full time, eventually graduating with high honors and being a surrogate parent to a much younger sibling.”

Growing up, Francis said she was in awe of the United States because of its constitution, its freedoms, its respect for the rule of law, and she wanted to be a part of that story.

“Never did I imagine my journey would lead me here,” Francis said. “In our great county and great state, we are governed by the rule of law, not of men.”

Her husband, Phillip, and their two small children — the youngest just one month old — were at the press conference. Francis, who is on maternity leave from the 15th Circuit court, will not be able to ascend to the Supreme Court until September 24 because the Florida Constitution hold that justices must be members of the Bar for 10 years. Francis also served as an attorney for the First DCA in Tallahassee from 2011-2017. Francis received her bachelor’s from the University of The West Indies and her JD from Florida Coastal Law School.

DeSantis noted Couriel is the son of Cuban exiles, his father escaping “the tyranny of Fidel Castro” in 1961 in Operation Pedro Pan, the mass exodus of over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors ages 6 to 18 to the United States over a two-year span.

“People like John — and particularly of the Cuban-American community — they understand the importance of having a society based on the rule of law rather than based on the whim of an individual dictator,” said DeSantis, who called Couriel “one of the most talented lawyers he has ever been around.”

Couriel is a partner at Kobre & Kim, an international law firm specializing in disputes and investigations. Prior to joining Kobre & Kim, he served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida. Before that, he practiced with Davis Polk & Wardwell, where he focused on internal investigations and commercial disputes. Couriel received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard College and his JD from Harvard Law School.

DeSantis said Couriel too understands the proper role of the judiciary and understands the structural limitation in the constitution and brings to the court “extensive business experiences.”

“I’m grateful to the people of the state of Florida who welcomed my parents to our country 60 years ago when their parents sought justice and a better life, and, most of all, freedom,” Couriel said. “There is no better way to be grateful than to share it, and so today in committing myself to this work I also give thanks to the people I am blessed to serve with. I’m honored to share my best efforts.”

Couriel’s wife, Rebecca, and his two young children were also at the press conference.

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