Legislative Black Caucus still supports Justice Francis’ appointment
Rep. Geraldine Thompson’s petition filed at the Supreme Court challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointment of 15th Circuit Judge Renatha Francis to the high court apparently won’t be supported by most other Black state lawmakers.
Thompson, D-Orlando, said in an interview with the Bar News, that she hoped the Florida Legislative Black Caucus would reverse its support for Francis earlier this year, when she was one of nine finalists for two Supreme Court vacancies. The caucus wrote a letter urging DeSantis to put her on the high court.
Thompson’s challenge is based on the Florida Constitution’s requirement that appellate judges have been Florida Bar members for 10 years. She contended Francis wasn’t an eligible candidate because she won’t meet that requirement until September 24, which is when Francis is expected to join the court.
Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, immediate past chair of the caucus, said it would not be changing its support for Francis or joining Thompson’s challenge. Francis, who was born in Jamaica, would become the first Caribbean American on the court.
“To the best of my knowledge and I have spoken with a few members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, most of the folks, if not all, are still in support of our letter supporting and endorsing Judge Renatha Francis,” he said.
He said he and other lawyer-members of the caucus formed a committee to discuss endorsing Francis and they were aware of and not troubled by the 10-year requirement.
Thompson said the letter represents only the opinion of that committee, not the entire Florida Legislative Black Caucus, and she still feels other Black candidates with more experience were passed over.
Current caucus Chair Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, agreed with Antone. “The official position of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus is we stand by our original letter that Judge Renatha Francis be appointed to the Supreme Court,” he said.
Thompson’s petition asks for writs of quo warranto and mandamus, claiming that the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission failed to do its job when it nominated Francis and DeSantis failed to do his when he appointed her because she didn’t meet the 10-year requirement and, therefore, was not qualified to fill the vacancy.
It asks the court to order the JNC to submit a new slate of candidates and for DeSantis to pick one of those to the court.
DeSantis had been expected to fill two vacancies on the court (he appointed Justice John Couriel to the other vacancy) by March 23, but he delayed acting until May 26 citing COVID-19 pandemic exigencies.
Thompson’s action was foreshadowed when she wrote an op-ed article for the Orlando Sentinel in February, after the caucus sent the letter to DeSantis, arguing that Francis did not meet the qualification standards and other African-American candidates had been passed over by the JNC.
“When making this recommendation, the JNC had essentially given members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus a ‘take it or leave it’ proposition on Francis,” Thompson wrote in the op-ed. “The FLBC opted to support diversity on the Supreme Court. I support diversity as well and view it as highly important on the Florida Supreme Court as well as other areas in American society, but diversity can be achieved simultaneously with qualifications.”
She also noted in the article that Francis is a member of the Federalist Society, as is Supreme Court JNC Chair Daniel Nordby. In the Bar News interview, Thompson talked about the perception that conservative government executives will only appoint ideologically compatible people as judges, including from the conservative-leaning Federalist Society.
If the appointers were liberal, “should everyone who is appointed be a member of the ACLU or the NAACP?” Thompson asked. “We need an independent judiciary…. I think it’s critically important in every aspect and segment in our society that you get divergent opinions by people bringing different life experiences and understanding to the deliberative process. It’s something I support very wholeheartedly.”
She continued: “To be very honest, I think the independence of the court is the issue here. Do you stack the courts with people who share your ideology? Is being a member of the Federalist Society, should that be a deciding factor?
“If…there are no checks and balances, people just do whatever they want to do and that’s not the way our system is supposed to work.”
The petition, its appendix, and a motion requesting oral argument can be found on the court’s website at www.floridasupremecourt.org/News-Media/Court-News/Geraldine-Thompson-v.-Ron-DeSantis.
On July 14, the court set an August 3 deadline for DeSantis and Nordby to file their responses and August 13 for Thompson to file her reply. The court said it will determine later whether to have oral arguments.
(Editor’s Note: This story was updated on the afternoon of July 23 to add the comment from current Legislative Black Caucus Chair Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach. The story as originally posted on the morning of July 23 said Powell could not be reach for comment.)