The court's first Black justice was Joseph Woodrow Hatchett in 1975, and its most recent Black justice was Peggy A. Quince, who became its first Black female chief justice in 2008. She retired in early 2019 after 20 years on the court. (Lauren Witte/Fresh Take Florida)

Legal Dispute Leaves Florida Supreme Court Without Black Justice For First Time In Nearly Four Decades

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GAINESVILLE – The legal dispute that prevented Gov. Ron DeSantis from appointing the first Jamaican-born, Black woman to the Florida Supreme Court has left the court without a Black justice for the first time in at least 37 years.

The court’s new makeup is especially notable after a summer of simmering racial tensions nationwide and ahead of important, upcoming civil rights cases on its docket. The Republican governor’s backup choice to fill a vacancy on the court – whom he appointed last month – was Jamie Grosshans, 41, who is white.

The court’s first Black justice was Joseph Woodrow Hatchett in 1975, and its most recent Black justice was Peggy A. Quince, who became its first Black female chief justice in 2008. She retired in early 2019 after 20 years on the court.

Other state supreme courts similarly lack racial diversity, so much that critics refer to a “whitewashing” of such courts. The Brennan Center for Justice, a bipartisan law and public policy institute at New York University Law School, used the phrase in a recent report that noted there are more female and Black attorneys than ever.

How did Florida get here?

The Supreme Court itself upheld a legal challenge against DeSantis over his selection of Renatha Francis, 42. A Democratic lawmaker, Geraldine Thompson of Orlando, said Francis was ineligible because at the time of her appointment she had not been a member of the Florida Bar for at least 10 years. Francis was the only Black candidate on a list of prospects provided by the Judicial Nominating Commission, a panel of nine people appointed by the governor.

“The great tragedy of what happened with the most recent DeSantis nomination was that there was only one Black woman in the pool that was presented to the governor in the first place,” said Micah Kubic, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “We can say with certainty that there was not only one black woman in the state who is qualified to be a member of the Florida Supreme Court.”

The court ruled Sept. 16 that DeSantis must pick someone else on the list of prospects. He chose Grosshans, a veteran state appeals court judge. She also was a member of Federalist Society, a conservative and libertarian group, and only the fifth woman appointed to the Supreme Court. Eighty-six justices have served on the court, since 1845.

“I stand on the shoulders of champions who have fought for equality and the rights of women to lend their voices to the leadership in this great state,” Grosshans said during a news conference with the governor. She promised to bring “a fidelity to the law and an unyielding respect for the separation of powers.”

Including Grosshans, the court includes six men and one woman. Three justices identify as Hispanic and four identify as white.

Kubic, the ACLU director, said the list of prospects should have been diverse. He said upcoming cases under consideration by the court include issues about confinement in prisons and jails, and when bail is appropriate.

“Given what we know about the racial nature of our criminal justice system, it is an area where having a more diverse judiciary could make a difference,” Kubic said.

About 16% of Florida residents are Black, according to Census figures, but a survey by the Florida Bar last year estimated that only 4% of its members are Black – far below national estimates by the American Bar Association that about 14% of lawyers nationwide are Black.

On the bench, about 6% of judges in Florida are Black, according to a legal filing by minority bar associations in a 2018 case.

About 45% of state prisoners in Florida are Black, according to state figures.

“Almost everybody in our prison system is in a state system, and they have been put there by a state court,” said Meghan Leonard, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University.

Leonard, who has studied diversity on state supreme courts, said increased minority representation among judges improves the quality of verdicts and rulings, reduces biases that undermine justice and expands public confidence in the legal system.

California’s Supreme Court is an outlier, with a majority of its justices identifying as people of color. Leonard said it was the first such court in the U.S. made up mostly of minorities. The current chief justice, Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, is the first Asian-Filipina American and the second woman to serve as the court’s chief justice. Of the six justices on the court, four are people of color. Justice Ming W. Chin, the seventh justice, retired in August.

The Florida lawmaker who challenged the governor’s appointment of another Black woman, Thompson, said the selection of Francis was “purely a political appointment” and “racial tokenism.” She originally asked the governor to consider a more diverse group of candidates, but the court blocked the move on procedural grounds.

Even though Francis’ appointment was rescinded last month, she thanked DeSantis for his “faith and confidence” in her. She was expected to return to the Palm Beach County court as a circuit judge.

“Sometimes life does not work out as we plan, but who am I to complain,” Francis said. “I came to this country, worked my way up with no hand ups and no handouts, and I really symbolize, I think, the American dream through hard work, dedication and love of country and love of the state.”

DeSantis said he recommended Francis for a position as a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida during a phone call with President Donald Trump, and “the president was very receptive to that, and that is actively under consideration.”

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This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at nmanaba@freshtakeflorida.com 

About Nomfumo Manaba

Nomfumo is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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