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Five Questions for Jorge Labarga

January 30, 2014 - 6:00pm

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.

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