By Jan Pudlow
“It has been a long, long journey from fleeing Cuba as a boy, to the sugarcane fields of Pahokee, to the halls of the Supreme Court, to the judicial system’s highest position.”
Those were Justice Barbara Pariente’s words, as she congratulated her friend and colleague, Jorge Labarga, as the first Cuban-American to ascend to chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
The Passing of the Gavel Ceremony June 30 at the Supreme Court was recognition of Labarga’s stellar achievements, an historic occasion of joy for Hispanics, testament to the three branches of government working together, and a celebration of diversity.
“Clarence Darrow once said that ‘you can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedoms.’ In a sense, these simplistic words define the role that this great nation has taken during the course of its existence,” said 61-year-old Labarga.
“As a young child, I watched my parents dream of an American-style democracy turn into a Marxist nightmare. Thanks to their foresight, my brothers and I arrived in this great nation over 50 years ago, when I was about 11 years old.
“It was a period in the early ’60s, when our country was still struggling with the question of racial justice, when women were not provided with the same opportunities as men, and when a young and inspiring young president almost failed to get elected simply because he was Catholic.
“While it can be said that we still have a ways to go, we have certainly come a long way since those dark days. It is absolutely imperative that we continue to strive to be a country and a state of inclusion, and not exclusion.
“As one looks at the present composition of the United States Supreme Court and the present composition of the Florida Supreme Court, it can be readily seen that both institutions look like the face of America. It is also imperative that every effort is made to ensure that this court’s members — the true face of America — appear at every level of our judicial system. This is how our judicial system should look, from county courts to circuit courts to appellate courts.”
The crowd broke into applause.
As outgoing Chief Justice Ricky Polston remarked, Labarga, the court’s 56th chief justice, is a man “whose background underscores this state’s diversity, its commitment to representation of all its citizens, and its enduring faith in the principles of liberty and equal justice enshrined in our state and federal constitutions.”
Access to justice will be one of Chief Justice Labarga’s first projects, as he heads a summit to address the crisis that only 20 percent of indigent people are able to receive legal counsel and about 60 percent of working-class Floridians can’t afford to hire a lawyer and don’t qualify for legal aid.
“Justice Labarga, I believe, is going to set an example throughout the nation and the world, in the form of looking to increase access to justice,” said Bar President Greg Coleman, describing the summit that will include state leaders from all branches of government and the business community to address a societal problem bigger than the legal community can handle.
“I believe that when this group finishes its work, under the leadership of Chief Justice Labarga, you are going to see a different model in this state for years to come, to assist those in need to find true access to our courts, without hindering the courts’ ability to function efficiently.”
Representatives from the legislative and executive branches came to the podium to pay tribute to Labarga.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, a neighbor, noted, “from time to time we have had the awkward opportunity of seeing each other in jogging shorts.”
“I have learned in my tenure in the Legislature that there are three branches of government,” Weatherford said, as laughter rippled throughout the courtroom.
“Frankly, what I have also learned to understand is that while we all, at each branch, have a responsibility within our institution, we represent a larger institution, which is the great state of Florida.”
Senate President Don Gaetz, a nonlawyer, began by saying: “May it please the court. I’ve always wanted to say that.”
He, too, recognized the importance of an independent judiciary.
“It isn’t enough to have passed a bill. It isn’t enough for the governor to sign a bill into law. The actions of the legislative and executive branches, however well conceived and well intentioned, must be found to be constitutional,” Gaetz said. “So the Speaker and I are here today to show respect and support, certainly, but also a visible acknowledgement of the Senate and the House of the court’s authority, as our co-equal partners in a constitutional system that holds each of us and all of us accountable to the Constitution and to the people of Florida.”
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, calling the new chief justice “a dear friend and the pride of Palm Beach County,” talked about how Labarga’s family risked everything to leave their Cuban homeland.
“What you cannot share on a resume or the brief bio is the passion of the man with the values of fairness, his humility, his integrity, and his honesty that have been clearly exhibited in every work in every day of his life,” Atwater said.
“I can think of no better individual to speak to the importance and preside over the duties of an impartial judiciary, blind to the powerful interests or popular fervor, than one to whom it was denied.”
As a Cuban-American and child of immigrants, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantero knows firsthand.
“The nature of this historic day is not lost on me, having lived so many of the sacrifices of so many in my own family,” Lopez-Cantero said. “My grandfather came over as an attorney from Cuba, and had to start over in his 40s, going to law school, learning English while in law school, and becoming a member of The Florida Bar. It was always his greatest pride to pull out his card and to say he was a member of The Florida Bar, and he passed his bar exam on his first try. . . .
“From one Cuban-American who has achieved a first to another Cuban-American who is about to achieve his first, let me just say: Felicidades y le deseo suerte (congratulations, and I wish you luck).”
Cuban American Bar Association President Ricardo Martinez-Cid thought back to 40 years ago “when a few lawyers came together to form CABA, and were discussing practical issues — like how to deal with a judge suggesting that you, the lawyer, should use a translator. Here we are today with the first Cuban-American chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court!”
Raoul Cantero, Florida’s first Cuban-American justice, who resigned to move back to Miami to practice law, delivered congratulations spiked with a dose of advice.
“There will be times you are frustrated that the process of releasing opinions is too slow. At these times, a particular Cuban tradition will come in handy,” Cantero said.
Unveiling his gift, Cantero announced: “A Cuban coffee maker! And Cuban coffee!”
“My own experience on the court is that this little machine works wonders for productivity. When I was on the court, we held a Cuban coffee break in my office every day at 3 p.m.,” Cantero said. “And I can tell you that the productivity in my office increased exponentially from 3 to 6 p.m. every day. However, this machine comes with a warning label. It can produce excessive enthusiasm and talkativeness.”
Cantero offered rules to follow using the coffee maker, and No. 1 was “Don’t take a shot of Cuban coffee before writing a dissent.”
An hour-long ceremony, marked by enthusiasm and talkativeness, came to an end, as new Chief Justice Labarga asked Lililita Forbes to sing “my favorite song, ‘America the Beautiful.’”