By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
A former Florida Supreme Court chief justice and state legislator are calling for an end to governors dictating who joins the state’s highest court based on politics rather than excellence.
July 17 opinion piece by retired judge Harry Lee Anstead in the Tallahassee Democrat targets the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC), which, in theory at least, selects Supreme Court nominees and sends the governor a shortlist for a final cut.
With six names in hand, Governor Ron DeSantis is poised to replace retired Judge Alan Lawson. His expected pick is Palm Beach Circuit Judge Renatha Francis, 45, who would be the court’s first Jamaican-American judge.
In his article, Anstead criticizes the governor for appointing all nine members of the JNC and argues that the process should be changed to include input from the Florida bar and non-lawyers — as it used to work.
He also alludes to the controversy over Francis’ fitness for the job. Anstead describes how DeSantis picked her once before, two years ago, when she hadn’t been a lawyer long enough to qualify for court.
“Only public outrage and the intervention of the Florida Supreme Court prevented the embarrassment,” Anstead wrote, adding, “At least temporarily.” He declined to specify.
THOMPSON: REFORM JNC NOW
Last week, Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, whose 2020 lawsuit forced DeSantis to drop her bid to nominate conservative Francis, accused the JNC of twice evading duty in relation to the judge.
“The JNC has now recommended Francis as a nominee … even if the JNC had conducted a cursory review of statements in its Supreme Court application regarding reversals by higher courts, the commissioners would know that it has been repeatedly overturned” , Thompson said in a statement. .
“The question regarding the composition of the JNC, which is now seen as a tool of the governor, was not considered in 2020 and must be resolved now,” she said.
Thompson previously revealed to Florida bulldog that Francis has been the subject of three ethics complaints to the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC). Since then, at least two more have surfaced.
Still, Francis answered “no” when asked about her asking the Supreme Court to know if she was ever named in a JQC complaint. The person closest to defending his apparent deception was JNC President Fred Karlinsky, who speculated that Francis may not have been aware of the complaints.
Karlinsky did not respond to requests for comment on Anstead’s article and Thompson’s statement.
BUSH DOOMED MERIT SELECTION
DeSantis has used his power over JNC and Supreme Court nominations to turn both bodies into reflections of the far-right Federalist society. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, Florida’s highest court is overruling longstanding precedents — including in death penalty cases — that conflict with its conservative agenda.
After replacing Lawson, a Gov. Rick Scott appointee who joined the court in 2017, DeSantis will have named a majority of the seven justices. The only remaining moderate is Judge Jorge Labarga, usually the dissenter in 6-1 decisions.
At one time, Anstead wrote, the JNC operated independently and effectively, largely because the governor selected only three of its nine members. The Florida Bar chose three more, and then the six commissioners chose the other three, all non-lawyers.
This dynamic began to change in the early 2000s, when Governor Jeb Bush pushed through legislation allowing governors to choose a majority of commissioners. Eventually, the governor was empowered to select the nine.
“It was the beginning of the end for merit selection,” according to Anstead, who was serving on the Supreme Court at the time. He retired in 2009.
FLORIDIANS ‘THE REAL LOSERS’
“As a result, we are back to a system where the governor and partisan politics control the entire process,” Anstead wrote. The system had moved away from cronyism in the 1970s after three judges resigned in a corruption scandal.
“The current JNC gives us a false sense of security,” said Bennett Brummer, who served as a Miami-Dade County public defender for 30 years. “It was intended to promote confidence in our judicial system, reduce partisanship and strengthen the moral authority of the courts.
“Instead of improving the quality of judges through broad consensus and fairness, the JNC now serves only to allow partisans and special interests to control the justice system,” Brummer said.
“The real losers in all of this are the people of Florida,” said Damien Filer, spokesman for Progress Florida. The left-leaning nonprofit has lobbied for constitutional changes to the JNC process, and until recently supported a bill to diversify JNC membership – a bill that dies quickly with every session of the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“This bill has never been heard once. There is no appetite in this legislature to dilute their own power in any way, and if we’re going to be honest, that’s what this is all about,” Filer said.
RENATHE FRANCIS CLOSE TO JNC, GOP
Calls for JNC reform are about as common as tropical storms in the Caribbean. But the timing of Anstead and Thompson’s comments is remarkable, given the prospect of DeSantis choosing Francis again.
Even before the JNC selection process began in May, the governor informed the judges that Francis would join them, according to an inside source. And Francis, a West Palm Beach family court judge, was spotted claiming a prime parking spot in the underground garage at the Tallahassee courthouse.
Francis has close ties to some current members of the JNC and they all share allegiance to the Federalist Society, a longtime mentor of DeSantis. The JNC chairman when Francis was appointed in 2020 was Daniel Nordby, a partner at Shutts & Bowen, where Francis worked briefly before Scott selected her for Miami-Dade County court.
Nordby, a leader of the Federalist Society, is still part of the JNC. The current chairman, Karlinsky, is a partner at the law firm Greenberg Traurig and a lobbyist with ties to the GOP.
In that role, Karlinsky represented Twenty Labs, the maker of a COVID-19 contact-tracing app that won a $6.7 million no-tender deal with the state — even after DeSantis called contact tracing of “ineffective”. Florida bulldog reported. The CEO of Twenty Labs is the son of hedge fund billionaire Nelson Peltz, a top Republican donor.
THE PETITION IS REJECTED
While Renatha Francis’ Federalist Society network helped her rise quickly as a judge, her performance in family court drew widespread negative reviews. A persistent claim is that she goes out of her way to treat pro se parties — non-lawyers who represent themselves — with contempt.
A part-time attorney for Angela Bentrim, one of the pro se parties who filed a JQC lawsuit against Francis, asked the Supreme Court on June 23 to remove her from the Bentrim case because of her bias. Francis allegedly violated Bentrim’s due process rights by not informing him of upcoming hearings and a trial.
Twelve days later, Francis dropped the Bentrim case on its own. She called her recusal an “emergency” order despite responding to a seventh motion seeking the same result, one filed May 25.
Francis’ decision gave the judges a chance to avoid the awkwardness of assessing someone they might have to work with. Since she had already resigned, the court could have dismissed Bentrim’s motion as moot.
But instead of acting on a document labeled “Judge Renatha Francis,” the judges issued the petition to Francis’ supervisor, West Palm Beach Fourth District Court of Appeals, on July 15..
The petition is already gone; Bentrim withdrew it four days later. And the judges never touched that hot potato.