The Governor’s Good Choices for Our Courts

by | Sep 15, 2020


Recent attacks by my colleagues across the aisle and across the lobby against Governor DeSantis, his Judicial Nominating Commissioners, and sitting jurists, go too far. The Governor has been accused of both going out of his way to appoint the only available non-Cuban Caribbean-American nominee to the Florida Supreme Court, thereby violating the Constitution, and attempting to pack the courts exclusively with white men. Both cannot be true.

Even more outlandish is the assertion that the Judicial Nominating Commission conspired with the Governor to appoint a single unqualified female Caribbean-American nominee to the short list, knowing she would be challenged and rejected, so that he could later claim that he tried to appoint a female Caribbean-American Justice but instead appoint a white man. This wide-ranging conspiracy would involve the Governor, his legal staff, longtime Democratic Legislator Geraldine Thompson and her attorneys, several prospective amici, a rump (but unanimous) Florida Supreme Court, consisting of a majority of justices appointed by now-Senator Rick Scott or Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, as well as the nine-member JNC, four of which are nominated by the Florida Bar, an institution presumably disinclined to such a conspiracy. My experience in Tallahassee suggests that such a conspiracy is unlikely, given the apparent inability of even a subset of those actors to work in the open toward more wholesome goals.

For those of you keeping score at home, let’s review the history. Then-Governor Scott was sued in 2018 over whether he or his successor would appoint replacements for Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince, and Fred Lewis. Delaying the nominations until Scott’s successor could convene the Judicial Nominating Commission and nominate a list would have caused an extended triple vacancy on the Court. The Florida Supreme Court dismissed the action, ruling it premature. As it turned out, DeSantis and not Gillum was elected and he made three appointments: Carlos Muniz, Barbara Lagoa, and Robert Luck. Few complained about this diverse selection at the time. All the nominees were qualified. Two of the nominees were so qualified, in fact, that they were promptly appointed by Donald Trump to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. From a diverse list, Governor DeSantis decided to appoint John Couriel and Renatha Francis, maintaining the diversity of the bench. One of these selections was challenged, and the Florida Supreme Court rejected that selection on the basis – wait for it – that this nominee would create an extended vacancy on the Court. Then, only days before his selection would have qualified, the Florida Supreme Court inexplicably ordered Governor DeSantis to pick another nominee. Governor DeSantis risked a contempt before he relented in his choice of Judge Francis, and when he yielded, he yielded to pick Jamie Grosshans, another highly qualified woman from a highly qualified list.

If DeSantis were so preoccupied with packing the Florida Supreme Court with white men, he presumably would have asked that Trump refrain from elevating Robert Luck, his recent pick, to the Eleventh Circuit. He certainly would not have further increased the diversity of the Florida Supreme Court. The fact remains that Governor DeSantis (and Governor Scott before him) have nominated a remarkably qualified and diverse judiciary. In Hillsborough County, for example, Governor DeSantis has nominated or elevated six judges in the past two years. Two were women, one was Cuban-American, and one was African-American. His picks were uniformly qualified by temperament, education, experience, and fidelity to the Constitution. Governor DeSantis also recently nominated a woman to our Second District Court of Appeal covering South West Florida and the Greater Tampa Bay. Governor DeSantis has done many things well, packing the courts exclusively with white men is not one of them.

DeSantis’ critics’ only cogent reason for opposing the nomination is that a rule allowing the Governor to delay the seating of a Supreme Court Justice could create an unacceptably long vacancy on the Court. However, far longer delays resulted from relentless smear campaigns against conservative jurists dating back to the Reagan Administration. Such smears have transcended traditional identity politics with the only apparent, though unstated, goal of opposing, without regard to background, judges who adhere to rigorous constitutional analysis rather than flavor-of-the-session politics. In any event, President Trump will soon have an opportunity to take another DeSantis pick for our federal judiciary – Judge Renatha Francis.

Mike Beltran is a state representative who serves House District 57



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