Florida Supremes asked to order Renatha Francis to step down from case over bias

The interior of the Florida Supreme Court

By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org

The attorney for a woman who filed an ethics complaint against Judge Renatha Francis wants the Florida Supreme Court to order Francis to step down from her case.

Delray Beach attorney Margherita Downey filed a motion Thursday asking the court to review her claim that Francis, a West Palm Beach family court judge, showed such extreme bias against Angela Bentrim that Bentrim fears she will not be treated fairly in ongoing court battles with her estranged husband.

The petition carries unusual baggage: Governor Ron DeSantis reportedly intends to place Francis, who is 45, on the same court that is now being asked to remove a case from its docket.

renath francis
Judge Renatha Francis

Francis’ bid for the Supreme Court — his second in two years — is controversial. State Representative Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlandosays she is aware of three ethics complaints filed against Francis during her tenure as a trial judge.

One is that of Bentrim. According to Thompson, another complaint was filed by Winter Park attorney Cheney Mason. She did not provide any details. Mason did not respond to Florida bulldog requests for comments. The Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) treats complaints as confidential unless it decides to file a complaint.

FRANCIS IS NOT DEFENDED

Yet in his application to the Supreme Court, Francis denied ever being the subject of a JQC complaint.

And in her June 11 interview, she did not mention any weaknesses in her background when questioning Fred Karlinsky, chairman of the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. The JNC is supposed to screen candidates for the High Court.

Fred Karlinsky, President of the JNC

Karlinsky has not made Francis’ defense public since the JNC included her on a shortlist of six candidates it sent to DeSantis two weeks ago for his final selection. Karlinsky is a lobbyist and attorney with the law firm Greenberg Traurig in Fort Lauderdale and Tallahassee.

After dodging several emails from Florida bulldog over the past week, on Friday, Karlinsky released this statement through law firm spokeswoman Elaine Walker: “If I understand the process correctly, it is not uncommon for most complaints JQC are exempt from [sic] without the judge ever being informed of their existence, which is why it may not show up in the application process.

James Uthmeier, general counsel and chief of staff for DeSantis, did not respond to an email from Florida bulldog inquire about his reaction to Francis’ Supreme Court petition.

Uthmeier “directs the judicial appointment process,” says his biography on the website of the Federalist Society, a powerful ultraconservative broker known for influencing DeSantis’ judicial choices.

EX-HUSBAND PRAISE

Francis has a staunch defender in her ex-husband Jermaine Smith, a small trucking company owner in Decatur, GA. The two divorced 13 years ago while Francis was attending law school in Jacksonville. Both remarried.

“It didn’t work for us, but she never hurt me, not once. It’s character,” Smith said in an interview last week. The divorce information is redacted at Francis’ request to the Supreme Court.

“He’s just a good person,” Smith said. Francis said she is a devout Christian.

Smith described Francis as “a force”, a “motivated” individual with a big heart. When an Atlanta homeless mission she supported ran out of supplies, he said, “she went into her own pocket to get things done.”

Her portrayal of Francis would be unrecognizable to anyone who watched her June 11 interview with JNC. A judge’s job is not to try to save people from the consequences of their decisions,” she said.

PETITION REUSES COMPLAINT

Angela Bentrim, who is representing herself with help from Downey, filed her JQC lawsuit against Francis last November. In an April 12 letter, JQC executive director Blan Teagle told Bentrim that investigators dismissed his complaint after reviewing and reconsidering it.

The Supreme Court petition Downey just filed for Bentrim expands on his complaint and makes the legal argument that Francis’ actions necessitate his removal from the Bentrims’ post-divorce case.

Margherita Downey

They have been squabbling over the terms of their marital settlement agreement – ​​primarily life support for the ex-wife – since their divorce in 2009 after 12 years of marriage and two children.

Downey references in the petition a list she compiled of 28 instances where Francis allegedly violated Bentrim’s due process rights. Time and time again, she failed to properly inform Bentrim of upcoming hearings and other legal proceedings.

Meanwhile, the petition suggests that Francis openly favored her ex-husband Jeffrey Bentrim and his attorney, Robert M. Lewis, by talking to Lewis one-on-one and accepting his statements as fact without letting Angela Bentrim have his say.

HARM TO ‘IRREPARABLE’ EX-WIFE

Downey uses Senior Judge Martha Warner’s dissent in a related Fourth District Court of Appeals case to support his argument that Francis disadvantages Angela Bentrim.

In this case, Warner criticized Francis for having “made findings of fact without any evidence to support them”. The results helped Jeffrey Bentrim avoid mediation of a contract dispute, even though the marital settlement agreement requires mediation.

Angela Bentrim

“The evil [to Angela Bentrim] is irreparable, as the ex-spouse will be completely denied the opportunity to arbitrate the dispute,” Warner wrote in his dissent. She was beaten 2-1 by judges Jonathan Gerber and Spencer Levine.

Under Florida law and court rules, one of the reasons for a judge’s recusal is that a party fears “not having the benefit of a fair trial or hearing because of ‘specifically described prejudice or bias of the judge’, says a tutorial in the Florida Bar Journal.

“If the request is legally sufficient, it should be granted immediately,” the article said. The test is whether the facts “would place a reasonably prudent person in fear of not having the benefit of a fair and impartial trial”.

THE CALL COMES TO TALLAHASSEE

Downey asked Francis to disqualify himself from the Bentrim case. When she refused, Downey appealed to the Fourth District.

On March 21, the appeals court denied both Downey’s motion and Jeffrey Bentrim’s motion for sanctions. The motion, drafted by Lewis, sought a monetary penalty against Angela Bentrim and her attorneys.

They had filed documents, he wrote, “all of which are immaterial and impertinent…and which contain not a shimmer of relevance…and which were clearly filed in bad faith by Ms. Bentrim and for no other purpose than to annoy, harass, and embarrass the undersigned,” i.e. Lewis.

The Supreme Court does not have to take the Francis case. Complaints like Bentrim’s are common in emotionally charged divorce and child custody cases; judges rarely review them and rarely grant the “extraordinary” relief sought.

DOWNEY’S OWN STORY

Given the political dynamics of this high-profile appeal to the Supreme Court’s doors, Downey’s own credibility will likely be tested.

She is a 25-year-old lawyer who previously served as a state trooper for four years. Downey worked for the late celebrity attorney F. Lee Bailey in West Palm Beach for two years and spent another two years as an assistant public defender.

Since 2002, Downey has focused on her practice of family law and animal rights activism. In 2012, she went to Palm Beach Circuit Court against Judge James Martz.

Downey challenged Martz because she didn’t like the way he treated litigants, especially women. “We need a change on the bench, and Judge Martz doesn’t have the judicial demeanor of family court,” she said at the time.

Downey won 42% of the vote and Martz retained his seat.

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