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Politics

Jorge Labarga Sworn In as First Cuban-American Chief Justice

June 29, 2014 - 6:00pm

Jorge Labarga became the first Cuban-American to lead the Florida Supreme Court when he was sworn in as chief justice Monday.Labarga, 61, whose family immigrated to the United States after the Cuban revolution, became the state's 56th chief justice and the fifth from Palm Beach County.

Growing up in Pahokee and later West Palm Beach -- where he became a circuit judge and was briefly involved in the 2000 presidential recount -- Labarga noted that his parents instilled American values into their children.

"They raised children who were taught firsthand the beauty of our constitutional form of government, and children who learned through the experiences of their parents, that for democracy to work, the concept of justice must be applicable, available and accessible to all citizens," Labarga said.

His parents did not attend. Labarga said his father, who is 96, has health issues and his mother, 86, remained in West Palm Beach.

The passing-of-the-gavel ceremony at the Supreme Court continued the tradition of justices electing the next senior member who has yet to hold the chief justice position. The position is for two years.

Labarga replaces outgoing Chief Justice Ricky Polston, 58. Polston remains on the court, though he has applied to be the next president at Florida State University.

Polston administered the oath to Labarga. Labarga's wife of 34 years, Zulma Labarga, held the Bible.

Justice Barbara Pariente, who also came from Palm Beach County, described Labarga as witty and having a talent for storytelling, but also as a careful, detail-oriented jurist who uses his unique life experiences.

Pariente noted that when the court ruled in March that undocumented immigrants cannot be admitted to The Florida Bar, Labarga "reluctantly" agreed with the majority but offered his own strongly worded opinion that called on the Legislature to change state law to allow so-called "Dreamers" to become attorneys.

"The Legislature heard your words and passed legislation that allowed this applicant to be admitted to the Florida Bar," Pariente said, referring to an immigrant who was the subject of the court case.

In that opinion, Labarga wrote there were many parallels between his own life and the applicant in the case -- the difference being that his family was "perceived as defectors from a tyrannical communist regime," while the applicant "who is perceived to be a defector from poverty, is viewed negatively because his family sought an opportunity for economic prosperity."

As chief justice, Labarga, who has served on the court since 2009, will preside over oral arguments and become the point man for the state court system, which has sometimes been at odds with the Legislature over funding.

Among his priorities, Labarga said he wants to make the courts more accessible to all Floridians.

Labarga has also said he intends to continue the policies of Polston and former Chief Justice Charles Canady, who considered it their priority to find the necessary funding for the judicial branch of government.

Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the first Cuban-America to hold that statewide position, attended the event for Gov. Rick Scott, who spent the day focused on veterans at events in Tampa and Fort Myers.

"The nature of this historic date is not lost on me," Lopez-Cantera said. "My grandfather came over as an attorney from Cuba. He had to start over in his 40s, going to law school, learning English while in law school. It was always his greatest pride to pull out his Bar card and say he was a member of the Florida Bar."

Labarga, the state's second Cuban-American justice, arrived in America when he was 11 and could only speak Spanish. His family settled first in Pahokee shortly after the Cuban missile crisis.

He recalled living in Cuba when the dream of an American-style democracy "turned into a Marxist nightmare."

Labarga earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida before starting his law 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.

Then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Labarga to the 4th District Court of Appeal in December 2008, only to elevate him to the Florida Supreme Court several weeks later.

Labarga retained his seat with 59 percent of the vote in 2010 despite being targeted by some social conservatives.

The social conservatives were angry that Labarga and fellow Justice James E.C. Perry, also up at the time for retention, were among the justices who voted to kick an amendment off the 2010 ballot that would have given voters the opportunity to oppose involvement in the federal Affordable Care Act.

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