After two-month delay, Florida governor appoints two Florida Supreme Court justices

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) appointed John Couriel and Renatha Francis to the Florida Supreme Court on May 26, 2020. Couriel and Francis succeeded Justices Robert J. Luck and Barbara Lagoa, who vacated the seats in November 2019 after being elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Couriel and Francis will join one other DeSantis nominee, Justice Carlos Muñiz, on the seven-member supreme court.

Under Florida law, state supreme court justices are chosen using the assisted appointment method, where the governor chooses a nominee from a list of potential candidates provided by a judicial nominating commission. Newly appointed judges serve for at least one year, after which they appear in a yes-no retention election held during the next general election. If retained, judges serve six-year terms. To remain on the bench, Couriel and Francis must run for retention in 2022.

The appointments were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Normally under state law, DeSantis would have needed to select the new justices by March 23. He delayed the appointments in March, saying he had not had time to review the candidates’ application materials.

Couriel is an attorney at Kobre & Kim in Miami. Before that, he was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida’s Criminal Division. Couriel obtained his bachelor’s degree (A.B.) and his J.D. from Harvard. He was a 2016 Republican candidate for Florida House of Representatives District 114 and a 2012 Republican candidate for Florida State Senate District 35.

Francis is a judge on the Florida 15th Circuit Court. She was appointed to that court on October 1, 2019, by Gov. DeSantis. Before that, she served on the Florida 11th Circuit Court (2018-2019) and on the Miami-Dade County Court (2017-2018). Francis earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of the West Indies and a J.D. from Florida Coastal School of Law. She was born in Jamaica and is the first Caribbean-American to serve on the Florida Supreme Court.

Media coverage of the appointment process focused on issues of diversity and questions surrounding Francis’ eligibility. Appellate lawyer Adam Richardson wrote in Slate that the governor was not authorized to appoint Francis, arguing she did not meet the requirement that Florida Supreme Court justices be admitted to practice law in the state for 10 years prior to assuming the bench. Other writers, like Eugene K. Pettis in the Tallahassee Democrat, argued that waiting to appoint Francis “outweighs the ramifications of our high court lacking diversity for years to come.”

In 2019, there were 22 supreme court vacancies across 14 of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. Of those 22 vacancies, 15 are in states where a Republican governor appoints the replacement. Six vacancies occurred in a state where a Democratic governor fills vacancies, while another occurred in a state where a Republican-controlled legislature appoints replacements.

In 2020, there have been 13 supreme court vacancies in nine of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. Eight vacancies are in states where a Democratic governor appoints the replacement, and four are in states where a Republican governor appoints the replacement. One vacancy is in a state where the state supreme court votes to appoint the replacement.

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