Florida Supreme Court welcomes its first Cuban-American chief justice

For the next two years, new Chief Justice Jorge Labarga will be the court’s top administrative officer and lead questioner in oral arguments.

06/30/2014 7:46 PM

07/01/2014 10:07 AM

In a standing-room-only ceremony steeped in pride, Jorge Labarga took the oath Monday as the 56th chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

Labarga, 61, is the first Cuban-American to hold the position.

Born in Cuba, he came to the U.S. with his family in 1963 and learned English as he grew up in rural Pahokee near Palm Beach County’s sugar cane fields.

He studied law at the University of Florida, later working as a public defender and prosecutor. Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him to the circuit court in 1996, and former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him to the Supreme Court in 2009.

“This is the way our judicial system should look,” Labarga said from his new perch at the center of the court dais, extending his arms toward his six colleagues who include three white men, one white woman, an African American man and an African American woman.

Labarga is one of four justices appointed by Crist, now a Democrat considered likely to be Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s opponent in November.

Scott was not at the ceremony. He has clashed with the Florida Bar, often rejecting its lists of nominees to serve on 26 nominating commissions that recommend finalists for vacant judgeships.

The immediate past president of the Florida Bar, Eugene Pettis of Fort Lauderdale, has been critical of the lack of diversity in judicial appointments under Scott and said in February that “the numbers are going backwards.”

Labarga, voted to his new post by his colleagues, succeeds Justice Ricky Polston. For the next two years, he will be the top administrative officer of the court system and lead questioner in oral arguments before the seven-member court.

“I am so proud of you,” said Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who spoke of his own grandfather’s pride at passing the Bar exam and getting his law license in Florida.

Labarga authored a widely quoted concurring opinion in a March decision involving Jose Godinez-Samperio, 26, of Largo, whose bid to practice law in Florida was stopped because he is not a U.S. citizen. Prodded by a unanimous Supreme Court, the Legislature passed a law allowing him to practice.

Labarga contrasted Godinez-Samperio’s plight with his own situation, saying that because his family fled a “tyrannical Communist regime,” they were welcomed “with open arms.” But Godinez-Samperio, “who is perceived to be a defector from poverty, is viewed negatively because his family sought an opportunity for economic prosperity,” he wrote.

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford also spoke during the 75-minute ceremony. Four former chief justices attended: Harry Lee Anstead, Stephen Grimes, Major Harding and Parker Lee McDonald, and former Justice Kenneth Bell.

Justice Barbara Pariente, also from Palm Beach County, praised Labarga’s work ethic, keen intellect and sense of humor. He enjoys telling a story about being mistaken for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, she said.

Labarga joked about moving the Florida Bar headquarters to Palm Beach County and the room broke into laughter. “You legislators, don’t laugh,’’ he quipped. “You’re next.”

He said he wished his 96-year-old father could have been there, but he had to remain at home in West Palm Beach with his 85-year-old wife.

Former Justice Raoul Cantero, also a Cuban-American, opened a box and presented Labarga with a Cuban coffee maker and two bags of coffee.

“This little machine works wonders for productivity,” said Cantero, a Miami lawyer.

In the court’s rotunda, amid trays of pastries, Labarga received congratulations from dozens of friends. He said he’ll convene a statewide summit to address the growing problem many Americans face of affording access to the courts.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com .

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