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Cuban-American joins Florida's top court

Gov. Charlie Crist prepares Friday to announce his pick for the
state’s high court at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

Gov. Charlie Crist prepares Friday to announce his pick for the state’s high court at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG — Jorge Labarga, who fled his native Cuba as a boy after Fidel Castro seized power, on Friday became the second Cuban-American justice to serve on the Florida Supreme Court.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who twice bypassed Labarga as a finalist for the state's highest court, appointed the 56-year-old Palm Beach County Circuit judge. Less than two weeks ago, Crist appointed Labarga to a vacancy on the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

"His broad experience has given him truly the opportunity to firsthand see how law and the courts affect people's lives," Crist said of Labarga in an announcement held in St. Petersburg, where Crist has an office.

The governor said Labarga has "all of the qualities needed in a Supreme Court justice: confidence, integrity, fairness and compassion, as well as an added dimension — diversity."

In a state where nearly one of five residents is Hispanic, diversity appeared to be central to Crist's decision, which follows one of the most controversial episodes in years involving a Supreme Court vacancy.

Labarga was one of five names sent to Crist last month by the nine-member Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, a panel of political appointees. But Crist insisted on more names, saying the pool lacked diversity.

Some members of the panel said Crist's action smacked of politics. The commission, by a 5-4 vote in a contentious Dec. 17 conference call meeting, agreed to consider other names for the appointment.

The panel eventually added only Frank Jimenez, a Cuban-American, general counsel to the Navy and a top legal adviser to former Gov. Jeb Bush.

That decision sparked criticism by a group of prominent lawyers, including a state senator and a former Florida Bar president, that the screening process had become polluted by politics as speculation grew that Jimenez was a lock. Crist made it clear that Jimenez's supporters would be disappointed if they expected his appointment to be a slam dunk.

Labarga said he was 11 years old when he fled Havana with his parents, who settled in Pahokee so his father could continue working in sugar mills, as he did in Cuba. Labarga said he can recall attaching a Cuban flag to the radio antenna of his father's 1956 Chevrolet.

"I have a special appreciation for the United States and the system of government we live in," Labarga said. "It will be my priority to be sure our constitutional principles are enforced."

Labarga was one of a handful of Florida judges who handled various legal challenges during the 2000 presidential recount. His decisions include a ruling that it was up to the Palm Beach County canvassing board to decide what constituted a vote under the old punch card system, and his dismissal of a Democratic lawsuit that sought a "re-vote" to determine who won the presidency.

In 2007, Labarga made remarks from the bench that raised questions about his judicial temperament.

"When you pick a fight with a judge, ultimately, you are going to lose," he said. "Not today, but five years from now, 10 years from now, six years from now. That judge is going to remember you always, always."

Fort Lauderdale lawyer Gary Kollin was the target of Labarga's words after the two had sparred in court more than once. Kollin sent Crist a letter calling Labarga's comments a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct, subject to sanctions by the Florida Supreme Court.

Labarga disqualified himself from the case because one of the lawyers in the case was his former law partner.

The judge said Friday that he should not have made the remarks.

"It's something that should not have been said, and it's not representative of my judicial practice for the past 13 years," he said. "I am highly regarded in Palm Beach County as fair and impartial."

Crist, a lawyer, said Friday that he spoke to Labarga about his comments and was satisfied with his answer.

"He made a mistake. Don't we all?" Crist said.

Last May, Labarga, who has two college-age daughters, wrote an opinion article for The Palm Beach Post in which he said parents needed to pamper their children less and hold them more accountable for their actions. He recalled getting a D in high school algebra and being ordered by his father to study harder. The next semester, he got a B.

Crist has now appointed three justices in rapid succession: Labarga, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston. Canady replaced Raoul Cantero, a Cuban-American — a vacancy for which Labarga was a finalist. Labarga officially replaces Harry Lee Anstead, 71, who must retire because he has reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Following the retirement of Justice Charles Wells in March, Crist will have appointed a majority to the seven-member court.

Labarga interviewed for the job, which pays $161,200, with Crist on Christmas Eve in the governor's office. The newest justice was at his Wellington home Friday, using his computer to search for a furnished apartment in Tallahassee.

"I'm still on Cloud Nine," he said. "I look forward to this new chapter in my career and to further serve the people with justice."

Labarga holds political science and law degrees from the University of Florida and served as an assistant public defender and prosecutor in Palm Beach County before entering private practice in 1987.

He once led a Cuban-American Republican Club in Palm Beach County and actively campaigned for Jeb Bush in his 1994 campaign. Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, appointed Labarga to the circuit bench in 1996.

Information from the Associated Press and the News Service of Florida was used in this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

fast facts

Jorge Labarga

Born: Havana

Age: 56

Florida resident 45 years

Married, two daughters in college

Appointed to 15th Judicial Circuit in 1996 by Gov. Lawton Chiles

Cuban-American joins Florida's top court 01/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 3, 2009 9:16am]

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