Gov. Ron DeSantis blew another deadline Monday and failed to name a justice to the Florida Supreme Court by noon, prompting the court to unleash a powerful writ of mandamus, ordering him to make an appointment by 5 p.m. or face sanctions, such as being held in contempt.
DeSantis on Friday was ordered to fill the vacancy on the court after the justices unanimously ruled he had overstepped his authority when he appointed Palm Beach County Judge Renatha Francis to fill one of two vacancies on the high court bench. The court concluded that Francis was not eligible to serve because she did not meet the constitutional requirement of being a member of The Florida Bar for 10 years when she was appointed.
But rather than issue a writ of mandamus, a legal term that means the public official has no discretion and is compelled to comply with the law, the court instead said it trusted the governor to follow the order make the appointment by the time required.
At 10:28 a.m. Monday, DeSantis sent out a cryptic tweet that said: “Today, I’ll be making an announcement about Judge Renatha Francis and the future of the Florida Supreme Court. Stay tuned.”
By 2:45 p.m., he had missed the noon deadline, so the court lowered the legal boom.
“Trusting that the Governor would fully comply with the order, and consistent with our traditional practice, the Court withheld issuance of the writ of mandamus,’’ the court wrote in a four-page order signed by five justices.
“The deadline has now passed. It appearing that the Governor has yet to comply, we hereby issue the writ of mandamus and order the Governor immediately to comply with the Court’s order of September 11 and to certify his compliance to the Court by 5:00 p.m. today.”
Justice John Couriel, who had been appointed in May by DeSantis, along with Francis, to fill two vacancies on the court recused himself from the rulings. Another of the governor’s appointees, Justice Carlos G. Muñiz, wrote the first opinion by the court and has agreed with all unanimous rulings since.
At 3:48 p.m., the governor called a 5 p.m. press conference in the Capitol.
The high stakes drama between the two branches of government, both comprised of conservatives, took many legal observers by surprise.
“For well over 200 years, our system has depended on the branches respecting one another when exercising their lawful powers,’’ said Bryan Gowdy, a Jacksonville appellate lawyer from the firm Creed & Gowdy. “The unanimous court, including one justice appointed by the governor, are exercising their lawful power to make the appointment and he has disregarded it. If I ever had a client that did not follow the judges’ order, they would be held in contempt.”
If the governor, a lawyer, refuses to comply with the court by 5 p.m., the law allows the court to hold him in contempt, and potentially subject to arrest.sonos sonos One (Gen 2) - Voice Controlled Smart Speaker with Amazon Alexa Built-in - Black read more
The furor over Francis began when state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat from Windemere, filed a lawsuit in July accusing the governor of violating the Constitution by appointing a candidate to the state’s highest court who wasn’t yet eligible.
Francis, 42, was born in Jamaica, and the governor touted the fact she would bring diversity to the court as the only woman and the first Black justice since Peggy Quince retired last year.
She was one of nine finalists, and the only one who is Black, selected for two Supreme Court vacancies from a field of 32 candidates that included six other Black lawyers and judges chosen by the Judicial Nominating Commission, which the governor controls.
DeSantis first asked the court to reconsider the ruling, but the court rejected that request and, in a second unanimous ruling, allowed Thompson to amend her lawsuit to recommend a remedy for the governor to choose another candidate.
Last week, DeSantis signaled that he wanted to continue to fight. He assembled a group of Francis supporters, all Black Democratic leaders of Caribbean-American heritage, to appear with him at a Miramar news conference to assail the ruling. It was a divisive move that divided members of the Legislative Black Caucus
The governor then filed another appeal, asking the court to conduct oral arguments, a tactic that could have delayed the case long enough to extend past the Sept. 24 date on which Francis would become eligible. The court rejected it again.
There is little precedence for this kind of defiance of a governor against a court but there are some examples of governors attempting to sidestep the court.
In 1970, then-Gov. Claude Kirk was held in contempt by U.S. District Judge Ben Krentzman for attempting to frustrate Krentzman’s order to desegregate Manatee County Schools and for refusing to show up in court. The judge ordered Kirk to pay $10,000 per day, unless he stopping interfering with the court’s orders. Faced with the fine, Kirk backed down, and the desegregation of the Manatee County public schools began.
“To see a governor disregard an order of the court is most disheartening,’’ Gowdy said. “This is a standoff, a constitutional crisis.”’
In 2005, then-Gov. Jeb Bush tried and failed to use the power of his office to attempt to overrule a Florida Supreme Court decision overturning Terri’s law, passed by a Republican Legislature in an emergency session, that allowed the governor to order the resumption of tube-feeding of comatose Terri Schiavo, against the wishes of her husband. The Florida Supreme Court, which included three of Bush’s appointees, issued a unanimous ruling that the law was unconstitutional.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and @MaryEllenKlas
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