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July 15, 2017

Labarga: Our democracy is strong and resilient
‘Together, the courts and the Bar have accomplished a great deal, but a lot more remains to be done’

By Gary Blankenship
Senior Editor

For the second consecutive year, The Florida Bar Annual Convention gathered on the heels of a sensational mass shooting.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga Last year, it was the Pulse nightclub shooting, a few miles from the convention in Orlando. This year it was the shooting on an Alexandria, VA, baseball field that left two Republican U.S. representatives and two police officers injured.

Those events were on the mind of Chief Justice Jorge Labarga as he delivered his State of the Judiciary address at the convention’s Judicial Luncheon on June 22.

“Ultimately, the resilience of the American spirit, the strength of our democratic ideals, and our ability to unite and face any difficulty will always carry the day for our democracy,” Labarga told the crowd of several hundred. “And this is because we are one nation, under God, absolutely indivisible, that has paid a dear price throughout history for liberty and always striving for justice for all. These are the ingredients of our democracy — and as long as they are there, no foe can ever stop our democracy.”

Those strengths were also on display in the recent state legislative session where “a number of substantive legislative proposals were introduced that would have had a detrimental impact, to say the least, on the judicial branch,” he said.

“But something happened during the session —something truly magnificent — that is living proof that government can work when the three branches talk to each other. Thanks to the open lines of communication among the leadership of the three branches, and our mutual concern for the citizens of our state, those legislative proposals were ultimately resolved.”

Labarga thanked House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Palm City, and Gov. Rick Scott for a constructive dialogue and for supporting the courts.

Instead of problematic bills, judges saw their first pay raise — 10 percent — in more than 10 years, the chief justice said, adding “this increase will help ensure the ability to attract and retain quality jurists at all levels of the court system.”

Labarga used the talk to address issues related to access to the courts, and he praised members of the Bar for their continued commitment to pro bono work.

“The practice of law is indeed a privilege — a privilege that carries with it certain responsibilities and obligations to our society and to our democracy,” he said. “I thank every one of you who has provided pro bono service, giving freely and unselfishly of your time and legal talent to represent the poor, the powerless, the defenseless, and the oppressed among us. Your work helps to fulfill the promise of equal justice for all.”

He noted in particular two programs discussed at the June meeting of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, which Labarga created and chairs with the goal of improving legal services for those who can’t otherwise afford them.

One is Florida Pro Bono Matters being done by The Florida Bar Foundation with Legal Services of Greater Miami, Americans for Immigrant Justice, and the Cuban American Bar Association Pro Bono Legal Services. The program is setting up an interactive website that allows participants to search for cases that fit their interests.

The second program is the Bar’s participation in the ABA’s Free Legal Answers, which allows qualified individuals to post legal questions online and lawyers can, at their convenience, answer the queries and offer advice. (See story in the April 1 Bar News.)

“Together, the courts and the Bar have accomplished a great deal, but a lot more remains to be done,” Labarga said.

The chief justice said he remains optimistic the justice system and the country will meet continuing challenges, offering a quote from “The American Spirit,” historian David McCullough’s book: “Yes, we have much to be seriously concerned about, much that needs to be corrected, improved, or dispensed with. But the vitality and creative energy, the fundamental decency, the tolerance and insistence on truth, and the good-heartedness of the American people are there still plainly.”

[Revised: 12-11-2017]