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State News

DeSantis Fills Supreme Court Vacancies, Blaming COVID-19 For The Delay

Renatha Francis
Wilfredo Lee/AP
/
AP
Renatha Francis smiles as she speaks during a news conference, Tuesday, May 26, 2020, at the Miami-Dade Public Library in Miami. Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed two South Floridians to the state Supreme Court on Tuesday: Francis, a Palm Beach County circuit judge who immigrated from Jamaica and, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is the son of Cuban immigrants. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Governor Ron DeSantis has filled two state Supreme Court vacancies, which have been open since the end of 2019. He announced today that South Florida circuit court judge Renatha Francis and attorney John Couriel will make seven justices on the bench once more.

DeSantis has had a list of finalists from the Court’s Judicial Nominating Committee since January, and was supposed to have made his picks by late March, per the state Constitution. He blames COVID-19 for the delay.

“The state of emergency with the coronavirus prompted us to delay the sections. I was not in a position to spend hours and hours reading these opinions and other writings,” DeSantis said, before debuting his new selections during a press conference in Miami Tuesday.

“Judge Francis will be the first Caribbean-American to sit on the Florida Supreme court,” he said of Francis.

“John Couriel is the son of Cuban exiles,” DeSantis said later during the press conference introducing his appointees. “His father escaped the tyranny of Fidel Castro via Operation Pedro Pan in 1961.”

John Couriel
Wilfredo Lee/AP
John Couriel smiles as he speaks during a news conference, Tuesday, May 26, 2020, at the Miami-Dade Public Library in Miami. Gov. Ron DeSantis, rear, appointed two South Floridians to the state Supreme Court on Tuesday: a Palm Beach County circuit judge who immigrated from Jamaica and Couriel, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is the son of Cuban immigrants. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The appointments make five picks for DeSantis to the state’s highest court. Former Justices Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck, who vacated the seats, both served on district courts in Florida before a short stint on the Supreme Court that lasted less than a year. They were both appointed to the federal 11th Circuit court of Appeals by President Donald Trump.

DeSantis touts his newest picks in much the same way he did Luck and Lagoa, saying they "understand the role of the judiciary." Since the Governor took office, he’s made a push to do away with what he calls “judicial activism.”

Francis’ comments on Tuesday suggest she will approach the post with in a way that’s in line with DeSantis’ philosophy.

“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 – but merely judgement,” Francis said, quoting an Alexander Hamilton excerpt from the Federalist Papers. “So we apply the law as written by the people’s duly elected representatives.”

Couriel, who will give up his job with the firm Kobre & Kim, repeated Hamilton’s quote and said “Governor, my prayer today is that your judgement will have been good, and that my judgment will not let you down."

DeSantis made a point to address the diversity of his Supreme Court picks since taking office, adding he’s not sure that the Jamaican-born Francis isn’t the first Caribbean-American to hold a state supreme court post anywhere in America.

“Two of the appointments have been women, three of the appointments have been Hispanic,” he said of his five appointees.

Francis won’t take her seat on the state Supreme Court until September, until she has been a member of the Florida Bar for a decade as required by the Florida Constitution. Couriel has been a member of the Florida Bar since 2004.

Both new justices will be up for retention votes in 2022.