MIAMI – Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday appointed John Couriel and Renatha Francis to the Florida Supreme Court, choosing two justices expected to cement the court’s conservative majority for years to come.
DeSantis said the appointments came two months late because he was focused on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, noting that he wanted to dedicate sufficient time to properly vet the candidates.
In selecting Couriel and Francis, DeSantis tapped two justices who share his conservative views on the limited role of the courts, after a liberal-leaning bloc for years thwarted Republican lawmakers and governors on numerous high-profile policy fronts.
“The Florida Supreme Court protects the people’s liberty, and part of doing that is respecting the limited role that judges play in our constitutional system of government. As judges, we exercise neither force nor will, merely judgment,” Francis said at a news conference in Miami.
Francis, a Palm Beach County circuit judge, was born in Jamaica and will become the first Caribbean-American to serve on the Supreme Court, DeSantis said. She also will be the first black justice since Peggy Quince retired early last year.
“Her understanding of the Constitution reminds me of another famous Caribbean-American, Alexander Hamilton,” DeSantis said. “Hamilton articulated what Judge Francis deeply understands: that the judiciary lacks authority to indulge its legislative preferences.”
DeSantis also praised Couriel, a Miami litigator.
“One of the things that John brings is he instinctively understands the proper role of the judiciary. He understands the structural limitations in the Constitution, all those things that you would want,” DeSantis said.
Couriel, who once served as a federal prosecutor and who was recommended by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, will bring “extensive business experience” to the court, DeSantis said.
“They (the Supreme Court justices) are all great judges, but I think John brings something additional, which will be very, very good going forward,” the governor said.
Couriel and Francis will replace former justices Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, who last year were appointed by DeSantis and later picked by President Donald Trump for positions on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Tuesday’s appointments were quickly lauded by a legal group that works closely with business and insurance interests.
William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, applauded the governor’s effort to “reshape the Florida Supreme Court.”
“The governor’s appointments of John Couriel and Renatha Francis as the 90th and 91st Justices continue his mission to restore the court to its proper role as the interpreter of our laws, not the author,” Large said in a prepared statement.
The appointments' two-month delay raised some questions in the legal community.
The Florida Constitution says the governor was obligated to make the appointments 60 days after the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission certified a slate of nine nominees on Jan. 23.
But the governor missed the March 23 deadline because of the coronavirus pandemic, he said. And in late March, DeSantis said he would make the appointment by May 1, a deadline he also missed.
The decision to push back his Supreme Court picks past the initial March 23 deadline appeared to be the first time a governor used a state of emergency to delay the selection of justices, Florida Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said at the time.
“We were going through the vetting process in my office once we had the certified list, but the state of emergency with the coronavirus prompted us to delay the selections,” DeSantis said on Tuesday.
Adam Richardson, an appellate attorney in West Palm Beach, has repeatedly questioned the legality of DeSantis’ appointment delay.
“The governor handled the process poorly. He exceeded his constitutional authority when he delayed the appointments and never explained why he believed he could do that,” Richardson told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.
Richardson has also raised questions about Francis’ appointment to the Supreme Court.
Francis is ineligible to sit on the Supreme Court until Sept. 24, when she will mark her 10th year as a Florida Bar member. The Constitution requires 10 years as a Bar member to serve on the state’s highest court.
Francis has been on maternity leave, and DeSantis cited that as the reason for her “ascension to the court in September.” He did not mention that September is also the month when she’ll be constitutionally qualified.
Richardson said he does not believe DeSantis is allowed to wait out her eligibility and noted that her appointment could be challenged if a citizen or taxpayer files a challenge directly to the Florida Supreme Court.
Helen Aguirre Ferre, a spokeswoman for the governor, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the appointment process or Francis’ eligibility.
DeSantis has been able to reshape the court, in part, because Quince and former justices Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis were forced to retire in January 2019 because of a mandatory retirement age. They had been part of a generally liberal majority that controlled the court.
Shortly after taking office in January 2019, DeSantis appointed Lagoa, Luck and Carlos Muniz to replace the retiring justices. Combined with remaining conservative justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson, the three newcomers immediately created a conservative majority.
Even with the elevation of Lagoa and Luck to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the court has retained a four-member conservative majority, with Justice Jorge Labarga dissenting on some high-profile issues. Labarga often joined with Pariente, Lewis and Quince in the past.