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Governor DeSantis appoints new members to Florida Supreme Court

BY LEN CABRERA

At a noon press conference in Miami on May 26, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appointed two new justices to the Florida Supreme Court, filling the seats vacated when Justices Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa were confirmed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. (A 30-minute video of the press conference is here.)

The appointees are Judge Renatha Francis of the 15th Judicial Circuit (Palm Beach County) and Miami attorney John Couriel from the Kobre & Kim law firm.  Both justices will be seated on the Supreme Court in September.

Governor DeSantis said he has now made five appointments to the Florida Supreme Court; four are from South Florida, two are women, and three are Hispanic. Judge Francis will be the first Caribbean-American to sit on the Florida Supreme Court and maybe the first on any state supreme court, according to DeSantis.

Judge Francis was born in Jamaica. DeSantis said her understanding of the constitution reminded him of another Caribbean-American, Alexander Hamilton, who was born in the British West Indies. DeSantis said, “Alexander Hamilton articulated what Judge Francis deeply understands, that the judiciary lacks authority to indulge its legislative preferences. That a court cannot exercise its personal will, but merely apply a legal judgment. And Judge Francis has demonstrated a strong commitment to the rule of law.”

In her comments, Judge Francis said she is “truly the epitome of the American dream.” She was born to a single mother who never finished high school. “None of that mattered because what my mom had, and what she imparted to her two daughters, was grit, determination, and hard work.” Judge Francis operated a bar and a trucking company for five years while attending college and caring for her younger sister.

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Judge Francis said, “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 judgment. And so we apply the law as written by the people’s duly-elected representatives. This timeless principle, in a civil society, promotes predictability, uniformity, and it provides a framework for, and restraints on, the polity, checking arbitrariness and potential abuses of power. If history teaches us anything, it’s that as simple and enduring as this principle is, it has evaded the vast majority of humanity until this American experiment. In our great country, in our great state, we’re government by the rule of law, not of men.”

Governor DeSantis also introduced John Couriel, the son of Cuban exiles, who is replacing Barbara Lagoa, the daughter of Cuban exiles, on the court. DeSantis said, “One of the things I really appreciated about Barbara was how the rule of law was just ingrained in her as being something very important. And I see the exact same worldview out of John, given the family’s experience. People like John, and particularly our Cuban-American community, they understand the importance of having a society based on the rule of law rather than based on the whim of an individual dictator. So when you go through that, when families have that personal experience about what can happen when law gets superseded, you produce people like Barbara Lagoa and John Couriel who understand the importance of upholding the constitution and upholding the rule of law for all Floridians, so we can maintain a free society.”

In his comments, John Couriel recited the Hamilton quote DeSantis had mentioned. He said, “I am grateful to the people of the state of Florida, who welcomed my parents to our country sixty years ago. When they and their parents sought justice, a better life, and most of all, freedom, this state and this country shared all those things with my family. There is no better way to be grateful to something than to share it.”

After the comments, Governor DeSantis took questions for him or the appointees. The questions were off-microphone but were all about COVID-19. One seemed to be about the Republican National Convention potentially being moved out of North Carolina. DeSantis offered to host both the RNC and DNC conventions in Florida. He said our state lost a lot of economic activity from events canceled because of coronavirus. DeSantis said, “Florida wants to work with you. If you’re a business, if you’re a sports team, if you have some of these events, we want to work with you.”

In response to another question, DeSantis said most new cases are in confined spaces like nursing homes and prisons. He said hospital space is fine across Florida and was never in danger of being overwhelmed. There was a slight increase in use after the reopening, but that’s because of elective surgeries.

Governor DeSantis warned localities to use the CARES Act money as intended; otherwise future audits could penalize the state budget because the state is ultimately responsible, unless the localities got the money directly from the federal government.

Governor DeSantis said testing capacity far exceeds demand, and most drive-through sites operate at fifty percent capacity. He encouraged people who want to get tested to go to a testing site, even if they don’t have symptoms.

Governor DeSantis praised Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez for his handling of the outbreak. He also praised the serology testing by the University of Miami that estimated their infection fatality rate to be 0.14%. DeSantis said that was nowhere close to the World Health Organization’s estimate of 3.4% at the start of the outbreak. He plans to increase serology testing to the rest of the state. He said last week’s CDC guidance had a nationwide estimate of 0.26% infection fatality rate. Governor DeSantis suggested the rate is higher than Miami-Dade’s because some states sent COVID-19-positive residents back to nursing homes that caused “thousands and thousands of excessive deaths. Had they not done that, you would have fewer deaths nationwide.”

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