Justice Renatha Francis targeted in challenges to appeals court candidates

Renatha Francis appointed to the Florida Supreme Court Justice
Renatha Francis. Via The Florida Channel, 26 May 2020.

By Dara Kam ©2022 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Legal challenges to six candidates seeking to be appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to two appellate courts took another twist Friday, after plaintiffs filed requests to disqualify Florida Supreme Court Justice Renatha Francis from the cases.

The challenges, originally filed Nov. 17 at the Supreme Court, contend the candidates vying for seats on the 5th District Court of Appeal and a newly created 6th District Court of Appeal are ineligible because they live outside the jurisdictions of those courts.

Justice Jamie Grosshans already has recused herself from the cases and Justices Charles Canady and John Couriel have drawn objections to their participation.

DeSantis tapped Francis to fill a vacancy at the Supreme Court in 2020 but her appointment was embroiled in a legal and political battle. At the time, then-state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Windermere Democrat, asked the court to block Francis’ appointment because she did not at the time meet a 10-year Florida Bar membership requirement for justices.

In a rebuke to DeSantis, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously rejected Francis and ordered the governor to appoint another candidate from a list of nominees. DeSantis selected Grosshans in 2020 and appointed Francis in August, after the 10-year requirement had been satisfied.

In motions filed Friday, plaintiffs argued that Francis’ tangled appointment history could taint her handling of the current challenges.

The court’s decision in Thompson’s lawsuit “had a direct personal effect on Justice Francis because it invalidated her appointment to the Florida Supreme Court,” the motions said.

The plaintiffs have “an objectively reasonable fear that Justice Francis cannot fairly and impartially render a decision in this case,” their lawyers wrote. “The appearance of impropriety that would result from Justice Francis participating in this case is not in the best interest of the administration of justice.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muniz last week appointed Ivan Fernandez, chief judge of the 3rd District Court of Appeal, to take part after Grosshans recused herself and the objections to Canady and Couriel were filed.

The seven-member Supreme Court’s rules require five justices for quorums to consider cases. If five justices are not available, a temporary associate justice, such as Fernandez, is appointed.

Judicial nominating commissions reviewed applicants and sent lists of candidates to DeSantis for consideration.

Grosshans recused herself because her husband Josh is a member of the 6th District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission, according to a court filing last week.

Meanwhile, attorneys who filed the challenges objected to Canady and Couriel participating because the justices agreed to be references for candidates.

Couriel was a reference for state Rep. Mike Beltran, a Lithia Republican seeking to be appointed to the 6th District Court of Appeal. Canady was a reference for Danielle Brewer, a judge in the 12th Judicial Circuit, and Michael T. McHugh, a judge in the 20th Judicial Circuit, both of whom also are seeking appointments to the 6th District Court of Appeal.

The Legislature this year approved a plan (HB 7027) that added the 6th District Court of Appeal and revised the jurisdictions of the 1st District Court of Appeal, the 2nd District Court of Appeal and the 5th District Court of Appeal. The changes are scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, with DeSantis appointing judges to fill vacant positions.

In one of the challenges, attorneys for Thompson contend that four of 18 candidates, including Beltran and Brewer, are not eligible for appointment to the 6th District Court of Appeal because they do not live within its jurisdiction. Thompson also is challenging the eligibility of Leon County Circuit Judge Stephen Everett and Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Jared Smith.

The 6th District Court of Appeal, to be based in Lakeland, will hear cases from the 9th, 10th and 20th judicial circuits — which include Orange, Osceola, Hardee, Highlands, Polk, Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties.

The other case, filed by attorneys for Volusia County resident Whitney Boan, contends that two of 15 candidates for seats on the 5th District Court of Appeal are not eligible. Those candidates are Florida Gaming Control Commission Chairman John MacIver, a Leon County resident, and Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Paige Kilbane.

The redrawn 5th District Court of Appeal, which will be based in Daytona Beach, will hear cases from the 4th, 5th, 7th and 18th judicial circuits — an area that includes Duval, Nassau, Clay, Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, Sumter, St. Johns, Putnam, Flagler, Volusia, Brevard and Seminole counties.

The judicial nominating commissions for the two appeals courts face a Dec. 6 deadline for filing responses in the cases.

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