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Nomination Of Francis To Supreme Court Backed

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson
News Service of Florida
State Rep. Geraldine Thompson

A panel that nominates potential members of the Florida Supreme Court on Monday defended its choice to include Renatha Francis, one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ latest picks to serve as a justice, on a list of nine nominees sent to the governor in January.

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, filed a lawsuit last month alleging that Francis, a Palm Beach County circuit judge, is unqualified to serve on the Supreme Court.

Thompson’s lawsuit alleged the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission “exceeded the limits of its authority” by including Francis on the list of nominees because Francis had not met a legal requirement of being a member of The Florida Bar for 10 years.

DeSantis in May announced that he was appointing Francis and Miami attorney John Couriel to replace former justices Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, who left the Supreme Court after being named by President Donald Trump to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Couriel has joined the Supreme Court, but Francis is ineligible to serve as a justice until Sept. 24, when she will mark her 10th year as a member of The Florida Bar.

In a response to Thompson’s lawsuit filed Monday, Daniel Nordby, the former chairman of the Judicial Nominating Commission, wrote that the court ruled in 2001 that a judge must satisfy the Florida Constitution’s eligibility requirements ‘”on the date of assuming office.”

Nordby, a Tallahassee attorney with the Shutts & Bowen LLP law firm, also argued that the Supreme Court should dismiss Thompson’s legal challenge because the lawmaker lacks standing to sue.

While Thompson filed the lawsuit as “a citizen and taxpayer,” she “does not identify any aspect of the judicial nomination process that affects her in her capacity as a legislator,” wrote Nordby, who served as a general counsel for former Gov. Rick Scott.

“The Florida Legislature itself has no constitutional role in the judicial nomination and appointment process,” Nordby, who was Scott’s chief adviser on judicial appointments, argued. “This court should dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction due to the absence of a justiciable controversy between the petitioner and the JNC (Judicial Nominating Commission) chair.”

In the lawsuit filed July 13, Thompson’s attorneys said the Supreme Court’s rules do not allow the nominating commission to recommend appointees to the governor “unless the commission finds that the nominee meets all constitutional and statutory requirements” to serve as a justice.

“The plain and unambiguous language of the Florida Constitution requires that an individual satisfy that requirement prior to being eligible for appointment,” the emergency petition, which named DeSantis and Nordby as defendants, alleged.

But Nordby argued that Thompson’s lawsuit “does not demonstrate that any emergency exists to warrant this court’s immediate determination in an original proceeding.”

He also disputed Thompson’s contention that the “continued existence of a vacancy” on the court “adversely affects the function of government” and requires “an immediate determination” on the issues in the petition.

Thompson “does not identify a single specific function of government impeded by the vacancy,” Nordby wrote.

“The court has maintained a quorum and has continued to accept briefs, hold oral arguments, and release opinions since the departures of Justices Lagoa and Luck,” he argued. “Even in the midst of a global pandemic, this court has provided steady leadership for the judicial branch and has continued to carry out its constitutional functions.”

The Florida Constitution requires justices to “be an elector of the state,” “reside in the territorial jurisdiction of the court,” be less than 75 years old, and “be, and have been for the preceding 10 years, a member of the bar of Florida.”

The Supreme Court “has held on multiple occasions over the past 60 years that a judge must satisfy the Constitution’s eligibility criteria ‘at the time of assuming office,’ ” Nordby wrote in Monday’s 35-page response.

Thompson’s “underlying premise that an applicant for judicial office must satisfy the constitutional eligibility criteria ‘at the time of nomination or appointment to office” finds no support in the text of the Florida Constitution or this court’s precedent,” he argued.

Couriel, who already joined the court, recused himself from Thompson’s case a day after her lawyers requested that he be disqualified.

Francis, who was born in Jamaica, is slated to become the first non-Cuban person of Caribbean heritage to serve on the Supreme Court, DeSantis said when he announced the appointments on May 26. She also would be the first Black justice since Peggy Quince retired early last year and would be the only woman on the court.