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DeSantis gets to appoint another Florida Supreme Court justice before his reelection bid

The Florida Supreme Court building in downtown Tallahassee.
V. Rakasi/vasanth
The Florida Supreme Court building in downtown Tallahassee.

Justice Alan Lawson is retiring effective Aug. 1 after only six years on the state's highest and most prestigious court. Lawson leaves a fourth seat for the governor to fill on the seven-member court as he seeks reelection.

For the fourth time, Gov. Ron DeSantis will fill a vacancy on the Florida Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson is retiring effective Aug. 1 after only six years on the state's highest and most prestigious court. He was an appointee of former Gov. Rick Scott. Lawson leaves a fourth seat for DeSantis to fill on the seven-member court as he seeks reelection.

“We have 30 days and then we can ask for an additional 30 days, which we routinely do, and it would be my intent to go to the Governor's Office and ask for that, says Fred Karlinsky, a lawyer and lobbyist from Weston who was recently chosen as chairman of the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC).

The JNC is taking applications for Lawson's seat and will hold public interviews with candidates in mid-June before sending six finalists to the governor, who wants to make the appointment in June. The governor's three previous picks move the court in a more conservative direction, and the next appointment is expected to continue that trend.

DeSantis has shown a preference for candidates with ties to the Federalist Society, a conservative legal think tank. The court also has no black members.

One clear possibility to replace Lawson is Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Renatha Francis, a former small business owner and naturalized US citizen, who would be the court’s first Jamaican American member. DeSantis chose Francis for a previous vacancy nearly two years ago, but her appointment was voided because she had not been a member of the Florida Bar for 10 years as required.

“She should be able to take office in two weeks,” said DeSantis when he announced Francis’ appointment in May of 2020. “I think she will serve with honor, integrity, in distinction. And when you have an opportunity to see somebody who's had such an inspirational life story, be able to ascend to these positions, I think that that should make us all feel good.”

Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, filed a lawsuit that successfully challenged Francis' selection, and the Supreme Court blocked her appointment. Caribbean American political leaders expressed pride at Francis' appointment, but the joy was short-lived. If she were appointed again, Francis would satisfy the 10-year bar membership provision.

The court is likely to face a number of high-profile cases in the coming years as new laws face legal challenges. Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, is confident DeSantis will choose another conservative.

“It's always a very important issue when it's (the) Supreme Court, and I know they'll be very careful,” Baxley says. “In the history of it, I think the clearest is trying to find strict constructionists who will weigh very carefully everything that’s put before them. But I think most of us are just looking for strict constructionists versus some kind of activist. Our governor is a man of action, and he doesn't want to be unprepared that, you know, there's places that we haven't taken care of filling these positions.”

The Supreme Court has charted its own evolution. The justices rejected a move by former Gov. Rick Scott to fill three vacancies that occurred near the end of his term in 2018. DeSantis won that battle and chose two justices who were soon elevated by President Donald Trump to a federal appeals court. By replacing those two and filling a third vacancy, DeSantis has now actually appointed five justices to the court and will get one more opportunity next month.
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Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.