Five Questions for Jorge Labarga

By: Margie Menzel News Service of Florida | Posted: February 3, 2014 3:55 AM
Jorge Labarga

Jorge Labarga

Jorge Labarga will become the first Cuban-American chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court when he moves into the role July 1. Labarga, who has served on the court for five years, will head the state courts system amid funding questions and episodes of tension with the Legislature.

Labarga started his career in 1979 as an assistant public defender in West Palm Beach. After stints in the state attorney's office and at a private firm, he helped found Roth, Duncan & Labarga PA in 1992. In 1996, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles chose Labarga as a circuit judge in Palm Beach County, where he served in the family, civil and criminal divisions. In December 2008, Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Labarga to the 4th District Court of Appeal -- and weeks later to the Florida Supreme Court.

Labarga came to the United States at age 11, in 1963, just after the Cuban missile crisis. He graduated from high school in West Palm Beach and earned his bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Florida. He is married to Zulma Labarga, and they have two daughters.

The News Service of Florida has five questions for Jorge Labarga:

Q: What are your goals for your term as chief justice?

LABARGA: My goals as chief justice are the same goals Justice (Ricky) Polston and Justice (Charles) Canady had. The three of us joined the court about one or two months apart. We knew that Justice Canady would be the first to be chief justice, followed by Justice Polston and myself. So the three of us have actually been working together since Justice Canady took the helm, and we will do a lot of things together for the branch.

So there's going to be continuity. It's not going to be a situation where you've got a new chief justice, whatever the prior chief justice did is completely gone, we start new again. I'm going to continue with the same goals. Those goals are to find the necessary funding for the judicial branch of government.

We have over 800 trial judges in this state, and they are dealing with criminal cases that never stop coming. They're dealing with matrimonial cases -- just tear-jerking type cases. Child custody situations. We're dealing with civil lawsuits. Business -- the business community relies on the court to settle their differences in contracts and enforce their contracts, the collection of their debts, things like that. This state cannot function without our judicial system.

And we have been working as far back as I can remember -- and I've been a judge now for about 18 years -- basically on a shoestring budget. It is now six-tenths of 1 percent of the entire state budget. With that amount of money, we handle all these things that go on in our judicial system throughout the entire state of Florida. Six-tenths of 1 percent. It was seven-tenths of 1 percent. So we've gone down. We need to improve on that. (What do you think it should be?) I would love to see 1 percent of the entire state budget dedicated to the judicial system.

Q: Any feedback from the Legislature on that?

LABARGA: I think it's been very positive. The last two sessions have been very, very positive.

And the economy is slowly creeping back. We have to be, and they have to be, cautious about funding because we're not sure yet which way the economy is going. So we have to be careful. And they are being cautiously optimistic and so are we, and they have been very helpful to us the last session and the session before. And I suspect the same leadership will be in place this session, and I know the leadership that's coming up next. They're very cordial, rational, reasonable people. They see us as a branch of government that needs to be funded properly, but again, the money's got to be there.

Q: Would you say the historic tension between the branches has improved?

LABARGA: Historically speaking, not just in state courts but in federal courts, the United State Supreme Court … there's always been a tension between the legislative branch and the judicial branch, and sometimes with the executives.

There's been tension here and there. I don't believe the tension is there as strong anymore. The last session and the session before, we were able to work together. This branch understood that we were in an economic crisis, and we did the cuts that were asked of us. We cut back and we did as much as we could, and I think the members of the Legislature now understand that we understand that we are all in this together.

Q: Talk about the significance of your being the first Cuban-American to hold your new post.

LABARGA: Well, let's begin with the fact that I was born in Cuba, and I came to this great nation in 1963, when I was 11 years old. I was old enough to have remembered a lot of things that happened back there. I was old enough to still recall the day that Batista left and Castro came in with all his promises of democracy, the American-style democracy. I remember helping my father tie a Cuban flag to the antenna of his 1956 Bel Air, canary-yellow Bel Air Chevrolet, and I remember driving around with him, with him honking the horn. They were so happy, because they were finally going to get this American-style democracy that was supposedly promised to them.

And I was also old enough to remember the incredible heartbreak when that dream they had turned into a Marxist nightmare. And I remember the executions, the fear. I remember my father having to flee the country. He left two years before we did, and we were caught behind because of the Cuban missile crisis, and President Kennedy pretty much enacted the embargo, and you could not leave Cuba directly to the United States. My dad just got on a Pan Am flight and he was in Miami. Two years later, after the Cuban missile crisis, we could not. So we had to fly to Mexico and live in Mexico for six months, and then we came to the United States

I remember those years. I remember what it was like. So I think I have this, perhaps, a deeper appreciation for our democracy in this country. The search and seizure laws are important to me. We don't just have police officers kicking down doors and walking into people's homes just because they think something's going on, as in Cuba. Or as in Russia. Or as in Germany back in those days. We just don't do that here, and that's one of the beauties of this country.

So if I learned anything from my experience in Cuba, it's to appreciate the freedoms and rights that we have, and I'm here to protect those rights.

Q: What role does the judiciary play in preserving that democracy?

LABARGA: Preserving our Constitution. Preserving those rights.

You know, everybody means well. I was a prosecutor for a long time. I was in the organized crime division. Back in the early '80s, the cocaine cowboy days down in South Florida, I was wiretapping people. I was doing those things. And you know, police officers have this thing where they think that they're at war with criminals and anything goes in war, and if anybody gets hurt, it's collateral damage. We shouldn't have that. I think our Constitution is here to protect us from overzealous reaching. And we need to do that. That's the way I see it.

Again, you need to get a court order to knock down somebody's door. You don't just walk in and kick it down. Those things we need to protect. By the same token, allowing police officers to do their job when there's probable cause for them to do it -- the judiciary has to be the weighing factor in deciding what is the correct way and not the correct way to do it.

So we at least have somewhere that the citizen can go to and say, "Listen, that was not right. That's not constitutional." In Cuba, they had no such thing. The first thing Fidel did, the first thing Hitler did, the first thing Stalin did -- they got rid of the judiciary and put in their own so-called judiciary. And that should tell us something about our society -- the need for us to be here.


Comments (1)

juan hernandez
3:42AM DEC 11TH 2014
to the honorable men and women of this state of florida
hi well ive been try to met with ever representative in miami fl now as of now Jose Felix Diaz with i did go to his office and i was told by his staff that he would not met with me with i do wan;t to file a former compliant on him i am disabled and i
have been trying to meat and i have been refuse .to by everyone .now why is it that all this people have done this to my is case i am disabled or the fact that what i wint thought and i bring up is the way the dep of health dose not investigation the compliant that the people of fl. do fill and file as i have done manny time in the last 15 years .and that office is there to protect doctor more that citizens of this state .to the point of discrimination in that dep and the house of representative with i have experience in the last 8 mouths .that i have try to bring my piont and ? up with this gov and all i trying to do is to help those that can;t help them self ,in my case i hade a head tram and then baptist hospital on aug 12 of 2002 well what happen there is what did disabled me and it was a ack of a very sick doctor , and i do want to to try to bring change to the doh , how cam all the compliant that my mom file in 15 years.and that office bose not have one and i do want to bring up,a madder that i have been try to get a answer to how manny people dose a doctor kill . or torture .or mess up before the dep take responsible to take ack and bring this people to justice .with never happen .all this year i have been email everyone in gov to bring a change and to try to have a way for citizens to report the accident that happen ever day but as long as the doctor pay off the people thay hirt no justice is involved , there should be some change and responsible for there action .as you know very well doctor are very protect even if thay kill someone . now i can understand that people die ever day but win a bad doctor gose and ack in a way that is to harm someone it shuld be address and taken very serious .as i have experience this and the doh well is a joke as the way thay protect the citizens of this state.please just ask your self this look how manny people work in different county and will see that ware the most investigation are need there are not enough and ware there a lower population there more investigation than need it dose that sound right to you..please do think about just for a minutes and you will see it not right , well in my case i am use voice after all i been thrue i do have some problem wrghting and i have been speaks with a lot of people about have some way that a person that with a disabled like that could call the doh and report if thay ware aduse in anyway with is legal to do but that dep refuse to set something up and i do want to bring this to the gov and see if a bill could be pass. thank you and i do hope that you are a man of honor and will see that this will be brought up in these mouth win the all the representative of this state are there in the hose of representative now i know i just one person that has gone those some very bad experience under doctor care and hospital in miami but i know you have the same problem ware your at ,i know i am ask a lot . but not one senators in miami fl has taken the time to her from met or met with me with i think that is so responsible of them as i am try to bring a subject that it very lrreponsible of the doh as that discriminate on the low income family and disabled now if you very well off thay will investigation very fast or if you have a great lawyer but i choses to have the justice department prosecution and fine why all those years that my mon would fill out there form and mail them so that dep would inv the very serious madder and abuse that happen to me but i have yet to get not one answers
thank you
god bless you
have a wonderful christmas and happy new years
juan hernandez

Leave a Comment on This Story

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.