Within hours of the news on Friday that Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, the name of a Florida justice who has rocketed to the top of the legal profession in the past year was reported to be on President Donald Trump’s short list for replacements.
Multiple news outlets were reporting that Federal Appeals Court Judge Barbara Lagoa of Florida, a Columbia Law School grad and first generation Cuban-American, was a top contender, along with Federal Appeals Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett out of Chicago.
It’s been a dizzying climb for Lagoa, 52, who only last year was appointed by Trump to her current position on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which oversees Florida, Alabama and Georgia. Only months before that appointment, Lagoa was tapped by a key Trump ally, Gov. Ron DeSantis, to sit on the Florida Supreme Court, where she became first Cuban American woman to sit on the high court.
Although Lagoa has less than a year on the federal bench, she has other qualities that might make her an attractive pick for Trump, said Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond.
“She’s had a fast ascent,” Tobias said. “Two key factors are that she’s Cuban American, and that’s an important voting bloc in Florida, and Trump doesn’t win the White House without Florida.”
She’s also a member of the Federalist Society, a group of conservatives and libertarians that push for a strict reading of the U.S. Constitution that adheres to the original text of the document. All of the judges Trump is considering for the Supreme Court abide by this approach.
Lagoa has been well served by Republicans. She was appointed to Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal in 2006 by another Republican governor — Jeb Bush.
Previously, Lagoa worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Before that, as a private lawyer, she was part of the legal team seeking to prevent the return to Cuba of Elián González, the Cuban boy who was at the center of a controversial international custody dispute in 2000.
She’s married to Paul Huck Jr., an attorney and the son of Miami federal judge Paul Huck Sr. She and her husband have three daughters.
Her parents fled Cuba over five decades ago when Fidel Castro’s Communist dictatorship took over. During the 2019 news conference in Miami announcing her appointment to the Supreme Court, Lagoa told the crowd that her father had to give up his “dream of becoming a lawyer" because of Castro.
Lagoa grew up in Hialeah, graduated from Florida International University and got her law degree at Columbia University, where she served as an associate editor of the Columbia Law Review.
With less than a year at the federal level, Lagoa may be able to dodge a contentious confirmation hearing. Barrett, by contrast, has been an outspoken on a number of issues, including abortion.
“(Lagoa) has a lot of state court experience, and you don’t have a lot of hot button issues there as you do in an appeals court,” Tobias said. “She doesn’t have much of a federal record at all.”
But there is her record on felon voting rights.
Earlier this month, Lagoa sided with the majority in a noteworthy case that might come up during confirmation. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled 6-4 to uphold a Florida law requiring that felons who have completed their sentences must pay all court fees, fines and restitution before they are eligible to vote. Some likened that requirement to voter suppression.
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But last year, Lagoa had a relatively trouble-free confirmation, Tobias said. While her 11th Circuit nomination was confirmed by a Senate vote of 80-15 on Nov. 20, Barrett passed in 2017 with a tighter 55-43 margin.
“Lagoa’s confirmation went much more smoothly than Barrett’s did,” Tobias said. “In a way, this Senate has already signed off on (Lagoa) with a strong vote.”
At the Florida Third District Court of Appeal, she wrote an opinion reversing the conviction of Adonis Losada, a former Univision comic actor sentenced to 153 years in prison for collecting child porn. Lagoa ruled that a Miami-Dade judge erred in not allowing Losada to defend himself at trial.
She was one of three judges who allowed a Miami judge to close a courtroom to the public for a key hearing in a high-profile murder case. The Third District Court of Appeal ruled that publicity surrounding the machete murder of a student in Homestead might unfairly sway jurors at a future trial, a ruling decried by advocates of press freedoms.
Miami Herald archives were used in this story.