Gov. Jeb Bush today will appoint Raoul Cantero III, a Miami appellate lawyer and graduate of the Harvard Law School, as the first Hispanic-American to serve on the Florida Supreme Court.
Cantero, a devout Catholic and grandson of former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, was born in Spain to Cuban-born parents.
He will replace the retiring Major Harding, whose bow tie and courtly, old-school manner typified a court shaped by the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Cantero's father, Raoul Cantero II, 67, himself a lawyer in pre-Castro Cuba, said his son telephoned him Tuesday morning with news of his selection. The proud father said it was a brief, and bittersweet, conversation.
"I said, "Congratulations,' and he said he had to get up to Tallahassee right away," the father said. "I'm proud, but I'm not very happy. He's taking my grandchildren to Tallahassee."
Cantero, 41, symbolizes the court's future. He will be one of the youngest justices in state history. A father of three children, he is a writer of short stories and head of the appellate division of Adorno & Yoss, a Miami firm.
His candidacy drew extraordinary attention because he helped defend Orlando Bosch, an unrepentant anti-Castro extremist who was labeled a terrorist by the U.S. government for his purported ties to bombing raids on Cuba. Cantero appeared on a Miami radio talk show in 1989 and called his client, Bosch, a "Cuban patriot." But Bush also championed Bosch, and his father, former President George Bush, pardoned him.
From Miami, where there is no middle ground concerning Castro, Bush received hundreds of passionately worded e-mails from people on both sides.
Cantero also wrote a letter to the Miami Herald in 1993 in which he defended antiabortion protesters, saying: "Abortions kill children."
As a member of a church whose hierarchy opposes capital punishment, Cantero will quickly become immersed in dozens of death penalty cases. That issue, more than any other, has sharply divided the court, which upheld the electric chair's constitutionality on a 4-3 vote.
Justice Leander Shaw, a death penalty critic who is next in line to retire, in 2003, triggered an emotional debate when he posted gruesome pictures of a bloody execution on the court's Web site.
Bush called a news conference for 10 a.m. on the west side of the Capitol, the side facing the Supreme Court, to announce his decision. Cantero was headed to Tallahassee and a room was reserved in his name at a downtown hotel, but he could not be reached. The governor's office said it was "very likely" that the appointee would be at Bush's side.
"I felt a calling to become a judge," Cantero wrote in his application to the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. "A judge does not choose one side or the other in a dispute; rather, the judge reviews the facts, analyzes the law, and draws his own conclusions."
The vacancy is the first in nearly four years, and comes at a time of tension between the courts and the two elected branches of government. Many conservative lawmakers say the court has been too assertive, writing law rather than interpreting it.
In choosing Cantero, Bush bypassed four other finalists, some of whom have extensive experience as judges, including Chris Altenbernd, a member of the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Tampa.
The other finalists were Circuit Judge Kenneth Bell of Pensacola and Judges Phil Padovano and Peter Webster of the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.
Cantero's appointment is a homecoming of sorts. He graduated summa cum laude from Florida State University in 1982, holding a double major in English and business. He was a cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School in 1985.
He joined the firm of Adorno & Zeder in 1988, and quickly rose through the ranks to become chief of its appellate division.
The selection of Cantero is sure to bring a wave of support from Hispanics in South Florida, many of whom already support Bush's re-election. But the new justice's father said ethnicity should not be the overriding concern.
"I think he's deserving even if he wasn't Hispanic," the elder Cantero said. "He has all of the qualifications to be a judge. The fact that he is Hispanic is an accessory, and not the principal thing."
One other clue to Cantero's selection was on Bush's official schedule: He is scheduled to meet today with Jorge Mas and other leaders of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, a group that strongly supports Bush's re-election.
Cantero promised to bring "humility" to the court, which grapples daily with death sentences and the constitutionality of state laws, and punishes wayward lawyers and judges.
_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.