Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, the first Cuban American to lead the Florida Supreme Court, announced on Friday that he will undergo treatment this month for kidney cancer.
“Doctors tell me that my prognosis is very good after surgery because the cancer was detected early by blood tests during a routine medical exam,” Labarga said in a statement. “This is a big example of why regular testing is so important for everyone.”
Labarga, 62, will undergo treatment at Shands Hospital in Gainesville. Doctors expect he will spend seven days in the hospital. He will resume his duties remotely, soon after the surgery, the statement from the court said.
Justice Barbara J. Pariente will assume the role of acting chief justice for any period of time during which Labarga is incapacitated. The Florida Rules of Judicial Administration for the Florida Supreme Court require that the member longest in service fill in when the chief judge is incapacitated.
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Labarga was named to the two-year term of chief justice in June 2014. He was appointed to the state’s high court by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2009 after serving on both the 4th District Court of Appeal and the circuit court of Palm Beach County. He was named to the circuit court in 1996 by former Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Considered a moderate, Labarga has been a member of the majority on several high-profile cases that have been vigorously ridiculed by the Republican-led Legislature, most recently the 5-2 decision to order lawmakers to redraw the congressional redistricting map. The stinging ruling prompted the state Senate to admit it violated the Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution and to agree to set a special session for October to redraw its state Senate maps.
Labarga is also one of the youngest members of the court and is one of the three justices who faces a merit retention vote on the 2016 ballot. The other four justices – Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry – all face mandatory retirement at age 70 within the next four years. Perry faces retirement in 2017, which will give Gov. Rick Scott the opportunity to appoint his replacement. Pariente, Lewis and Quince retire in 2019.
Labarga and his family immigrated to the United States after the Cuban revolution and settled in rural Pahokee, later moving to West Palm Beach.
As the head of the state’s highest court, Labarga has made access to the courts a central goal of his two-year term. Last fall, he initiated the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice to study the civil legal needs of low and moderate-income Floridians.
Earlier this year, he issued a rule requiring that judges wear “unadorned” black robes while in court, an effort to respond to reports that some judges in the state showed up for work in street clothes or camo-colored apparel. The rule is still pending.
As chief justice, Labarga presides over oral arguments and is the leading advocate for the state court system, including its policies and budget.
Mary Ellen Klas is Tallahassee bureau chief for the Miami Herald. She can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas