MIAMI – Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed two Floridians from minority communities to the state Supreme Court on Tuesday: a Palm Beach County circuit judge who immigrated from Jamaica and a former assistant U.S. attorney who is the son of Cuban immigrants.
Renatha Francis, who will be the first Caribbean-American to serve on the Florida court, and John Couriel are replacing Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck. DeSantis appointed Lagoa and Luck to the court last year, but they were subsequently appointed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President Donald Trump.
DeSantis, a Republican, said at a Miami news conference that he picked them because he believes they will make their decisions based on the law, not their own preferences. Both are members of the Federalist Society, an influential conservative legal group.
DeSantis picked Francis and Couriel from nine recommendations made by the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, which he appoints. Francis and Couriel will face a retention vote on the November 2022 ballot and every six years after that. If voters let them remain in office, they can serve until they are 75. No Florida Supreme Court justice has ever been removed by the voters.
Francis, 42, has served as a circuit court judge since 2017, the last six months in the family and probate division in Palm Beach County. She operated a bar and trucking company in Jamaica before moving to the United States as an adult after graduating from the University of the West Indies in 2000. Francis graduated from Florida Coastal Law School in 2010, then worked for a judge and an appeals court as a staff attorney before being appointed to the bench three years ago.
She cannot take office until Sept. 24 under a state law that says justices must have at least 10 years experience. She became a lawyer on Sept. 24, 2010. When Francis was first named as a possible pick in January, some questioned whether DeSantis could legally appoint her since she was not immediately eligible to take office and he had a March deadline to make an appointment. DeSantis said the emergency powers granted him because of coronavirus outbreak allowed him to push back that deadline.
Francis had the backing of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, as there had been no black justices on the seven-member court. DeSantis said her background reminded him of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers who also immigrated from the Caribbean.
“Hamilton articulated what Judge Francis deeply understands: that the judiciary lacks authority to indulge its legislative preferences,” he said.
But state Rep. Geraldine Thompson of central Florida, a Democrat and African American, criticized Francis' possible selection in a February newspaper column, saying she lacks experience and there were more qualified black candidates who were rejected by the nominating committee. She pointed to two African American judges, both appointed by Republican governors, who have been on the bench for 20 and 14 years.
"Though to some, all African-Americans may look alike, our contributions and achievements must be examined, weighed and considered if we are truly to be judged by the content of our character and not simply the color of our skin," Thompson wrote. Thompson did not return an email seeking comment Tuesday.
Couriel, 41, works as a private attorney specializing in civil litigation involving Latin America. According to his application, he frequently represents Latin American financial institutions and investors in U.S. court proceedings. He served three years as the vice chair of the American Bar Association's international criminal law committee and was an assistant U.S. attorney from 2009 to 2012 in South Florida. He is a 2000 graduate of Harvard College and graduated from Harvard Law School in 2003.
DeSantis said Couriel "is giving up a lot of money to serve and I think that says a lot about John, his character and how important the rule of law is that he would be willing to” be a judge.
There has been no public opposition to his appointment.
Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale.
This story has been edited to correct the title of the appeals court.