Jorge Labarga: Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court
After helping tie a Cuban flag to the antenna, seven-year-old Jorge Labarga jumped in his father’s canary yellow ’56 Chevy Bel Air, and they cruised around town honking the horn and cheering in celebration of the revolution.
It was 1959, dictator Fulgencio Batista had fled the island with his fortune, and Fidel Castro came down from the mountains bringing grand promises of an American-style democracy for Cuba.
But that democratic dream soon turned into what Labarga calls a “Marxist nightmare.”
Labarga may have been a young boy, but he was old enough to understand while listening to his father and his friends gathered in the living room. The men talked about being harassed by the military and strategized about big changes to come.
“My father had been arrested a number of times by the prior dictatorship that had been in place because he was suspected, rightfully so, of supporting the Castro revolution,” Labarga said, adding that because his dad knew the Mason’s secret handshake to exchange with a member of Batista’s secret police, he was never locked up long.
Once the revolution turned darkly oppressive, those living-room conversations buzzed with plans to escape from Cuba before they were killed by the Castro regime.
“Castro was executing and arresting anyone who didn’t agree with his neo-Marxist thing,” Labarga said, explaining that the new dictator was keeping track of everyone in the underground who had supported him.
“So Castro now knows we can be just as effective to oust him, so he is getting rid of anyone he knows to be effective,” Labarga said.
Fearing for his life, his father, Jorge Labarga, Sr., hopped a Pan Am flight to Miami, leaving his parents, wife, and three sons behind, with hopes they would join him soon.
But delays caused by the Cuban Missile Crisis from October 14 to 28, 1962, and the ensuing embargo required a six-month detour to Mexico. Finally, in 1963, the Labarga family — husband and wife and three boys, with the grandparents sadly left behind in Cuba — was reunited in America, in the sugar mill town of Pahokee in Palm Beach County.
Vivid memories of communist soldiers bursting through the door with guns drawn and the horror of many executions were seared into the mind of Jorge Labarga, Jr., who knew at an early age exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“I always thought that the best way to defend, protect, and uphold democracy in this nation, so the same thing doesn’t happen here that happened in my mother nation, is to be a lawyer,” 61-year-old Labarga said, standing in the Florida Supreme Courtroom, where centered on the polished wood bench is a name plaque bearing his new title: chief justice.
“The integrity of our system is in the hands of someone who felt the destructive intent of a system void of integrity. And a nation and state built upon self-reliance and self-determination has found its judicial embodiment in an individual who literally relied on those values to chart and pursue a celebrated career,” Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, a longtime friend from Palm Beach County, said at the June 30 Passing of the Gavel Ceremony, where an overflow crowd honored the first Cuban-American to become chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
“Asking at the outset for nothing more than opportunity and offered at the outset nothing more than a fair chance, Justice Labarga now ascends to one of the most revered positions in our state.”
From Mexico City Mansion to Pahokee Sugarcane Fields
Before arriving in small-town Pahokee on the shores of Lake Okeechobee, 10-year-old Jorge Labarga was dazzled by opulent accommodations in cosmopolitan Mexico City, where a Cuban childhood friend of Labarga’s grandfather had lived for many years.
“He became like the Donald Trump of Mexico City,” Labarga described. “My grandfather wrote to him and said, ‘I need to get my daughter-in-law and three grandsons out of here. Will you take them in?’”
“Of course,” was the welcoming reply. And that’s how, in June 1963, Labarga came to live in a mansion in the equivalent of Mexico City’s Beverly Hills, with more than a dozen live-in maids and a chauffeur who drove him wherever he wanted to go.
Within six months, the Labargas’ applications to immigrate to the United States were approved, and the family was reunited in Pahokee, where Jorge Labarga, Sr., was working as a blue-collar sugar mill employee for the same folks who had hired him in Cuba: the Fanjul family, who began sugarcane farming in Cuba in the 1850s and re-established the business in Palm Beach County in the 1960s.
“Growing up in a little town was very strange at first,” Labarga recalled of that period in the South before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
When one of his brothers got sick, Labarga walked with him and his mother, Miriam, to the doctor’s office, where they were confronted with confusing signs in the lobby.
One said, “Colored.” The other said, “White.”
“We didn’t know where to go,” Labarga recalled. “We just did not understand this division that existed in the United States. My grandmother would tell us about the United States and how grand the American people were. Then we came here and the African-American community lived in one side of the town, which is not a very good side of town, and the whites lived in another. You had a white movie theater. You had a black movie theater. Everything was divided.”
contrast, he said, in Cuba, the country-club set was segregated from the rest, but working-class folks, regardless of skin color, lived next door to each other.
When the Labargas were starting over as refugees in Pahokee, it was the height of the Cold War.
“We had just come out of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and but for President Kennedy’s wisdom, we might not be here today. People were building bomb shelters in their backyards,” Labarga said.
“The Berlin Wall had just gone up. We saw people on television jumping over barbed wire to escape. We were seen as people who had escaped from that same type of tyranny, so we were welcomed.”
Labarga could not speak a word of English when he started the fourth grade in Pahokee, and there were no English-as-a-second-language programs to help him. But within six months, he was writing and speaking English well enough to keep up and eventually excel, graduating from Forest Hill High School in West Palm Beach.
“My classmates would have to write theme papers about my escape from communism,” Labarga recalled. “So it was a different time. It was a different era. We didn’t have this policy controversy that we have today regarding immigration.”
His biggest adjustment, Labarga said, was that his parents “remained frozen in time. They were still living in Cuba, as far as their mindset was concerned. All their friends were Cuban, the people my father worked with. So I would go to school and deal with one culture, the American culture, and then I’d come home and deal with the Cuban culture.
“I’m glad it happened, because it maintained my sense of where I’m from.”
The long journey from Cuban refugee child to Florida’s first Cuban-American chief justice was celebrated at the Passing of the Gavel Ceremony by many dignitaries at the podium, with Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera saying, “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).”
A week later, as he stood in the empty courtroom, Labarga said with characteristic humility: “It means a lot to a lot of people. I just hope I am able to meet their expectations. I will try my hardest.”
Marrying Above His Pay Grade
Zulma Labarga held the Bible while her husband swore to uphold the Florida and U.S. constitutions and accepted from Justice Ricky Polston the gavel crafted from a Florida cherry tree growing near the banks of the Suwannee River.
From the very beginning of their 35-year relationship, Zulma said, Jorge had talked about his ultimate goal of becoming a Supreme Court justice.
“This is an actual dream come true. He’s reached his goal and he has surpassed his goal by becoming chief justice. For him to get to the goal he put on himself, it is something to admire,” Zulma said.
Labarga met his future bride at a party thrown for the new graduates by the law school dean at the University of Florida. Zulma arrived with one of her classmates married to a law grad, and Jorge was smitten.
“I almost made it out of Gainesville single,” Jorge Labarga said with a laugh of those years at UF earning his political science bachelor’s and law degrees.
“As great a jurist Justice Labarga is, he is equally a great husband and father,” said Doug Duncan, a former law partner in West Palm Beach.
“I always say that both of us have married above our pay grades. When he first met Zulma, they went out and talked for hours. I should say Justice Labarga talked for hours. And Zulma listened.”
Zulma said she was attracted to Jorge because “he was such a gentleman, and was reserved and shy like I was,” and he was a great storyteller, spinning adventurous tales of camping on the banks of Lake Okeechobee as a boy.
After receiving her degrees in anthropology and Latin American studies, Zulma went home to Miami, and Jorge returned to Palm Beach County.
“He would come to Miami every weekend to see me, even though he was studying for the bar exam. When he proposed, we had to go through the Catholic Church and had to take classes and a test to see if we were compatible. To put up with all that, that was true love,” Zulma said with a laugh.
Fifteenth Circuit Judge Sandra McSorley first met Labarga when she was an assistant state attorney and he was an assistant public defender in Palm Beach County.
“We became fast friends because we shared and appreciated one another’s irreverent and rather obtuse sense of humor,” she said.
“But I quickly learned there was far more to him than his being a compulsive repetitive storyteller, a regular jokester, and an all-around funny guy. His good judgment became apparent when I first met his wife, Zulma, who is truly a most genteel and classy lady. As Justice Labarga has often said, ‘Zulma is a saint and will go straight to heaven; I, on the other hand, will have immigration problems.’”
Zulma and Jorge Labarga celebrated their 34th wedding anniversary in August, and they have two daughters. Stephanie, 27, who graduated from Florida Atlantic University, is operations manager of the Omphoy Ocean Resort and Spa in Palm Beach. Caroline, 25, who graduated from Florida State University, is an art instructor for persons with developmental disabilities at Pyramid in Tallahassee.
While their daughters were still in college, Zulma stayed at their home in Wellington and managed a Pandora jewelry store at the mall, while Jorge lived the bachelor’s life as a justice in a Tallahassee apartment, surviving on Burger King, microwave dinners, and ruining a few shirts as he learned how to do laundry and iron.
They still have their home in Wellington, nearby Labarga’s parents in West Palm Beach, but now Zulma lives with her husband in Tallahassee, too.
‘The Greatest Job in the World’
On their statewide travels to Labarga’s speaking engagements and judicial conferences, Zulma navigates their Toyota Prius, while Jorge sits in the passenger’s seat, reading case law and materials on the current docket on his iPad and petting their two Shih Tzus, Mickey and Tiny.
“I am always thinking about this job,” Jorge Labarga said. “In my opinion, this is the greatest job in the world. I’m very happy with it. My wife, sometimes, is not happy, because she is talking to me and I am thinking about something else. We went to see the movie, Jersey Boys, and I can remember maybe only three parts of that movie, because I was thinking about something that was coming up, in oral arguments, or the judiciary, or the budget. I’ve gotten really much better at putting on the poker face, where I can actually look like I’m interested in what Zulma is saying, when I am actually thinking about: How am I going to get through next week?
“The Supreme Court justice’s job is much different than the job of any other judge. Just on the appellate level, the decisionmaking level, it is much different than anything else. Our opinions are far more encompassing. And everything we say becomes the law of the entire state.
“Lawyers cling on to every word we write in our opinions, so we have to be so careful in what we say and what we write,” Labarga said, giving credit to his staff for catching his mistakes.
Sitting in his new chief justice chambers, where shelves hold many books about President Kennedy, one of his heroes, Labarga passionately talks about his role in interpreting the Constitution, while ever mindful of maintaining an independent judiciary.
“People think of Cuba as a land of dictators. But it wasn’t always that way. In 1940 Cuba, a constitution was written for the Cuban people that, with few exceptions, was identical to the Constitution of the United States,” Labarga said.
“So a constitution is just words on paper. It is up to the people of the country to make it work. That’s why it is such a delicate balance. And that is why I think strongly that we need to have an independent judiciary to make sure that the Constitution is interpreted, not only in the way in which it was intended by the framers, but also that it keeps up with modern advancements.”
For example, he points to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that law enforcement officers need to get search warrants before looking into the contents of a detained person’s smartphone, which is like a portable computer containing private emails, texts, addresses, research, and photos.
“Clearly, the writers of the Constitution could not have envisioned that one day we would have smartphones,” Labarga said. “So we have to apply the Constitution in conformity to technological advances. We need a judiciary to keep up with that, to make sure the Constitution is properly enforced and properly applied to the facts of a particular case.
“If you look at every single tyrannical government that existed, beginning with Hitler and Castro and Stalin, the first thing they did when they took power was to pretty much diminish the judiciary, because they did not want anyone telling them that that’s not the way the Constitution says you can do this. So we have to be very careful to maintain an independent judiciary.”
Presiding at the Center of Bush v. Gore
While a 15th Circuit Judge, Labarga was thrown into a monumental political fray in the 2000 presidential recount case, Bush v. Gore.
“You may recall Palm Beach County was the epicenter of the butterfly ballot and the whole thing,” Labarga said. “I found myself presiding over that case after six or seven of my colleagues recused themselves and didn’t want to deal with it. A few of them had to because they had conflicts. Many of them just did not want to deal with it. So the chief judge told me that everybody else had punted, and I am quoting him directly: ‘Do you intend to punt?’
“I told him, ‘No, I see no reason to.’ He was kind of taken aback. I took the bench, and I was handed a stack of motions filed by some of the smartest lawyers in the country.
“People, even lawyers arguing those cases, they didn’t really want to hear about constitutional arguments. Everybody just wanted their candidate to win. They didn’t want to hear about what the Constitution required. They didn’t want to hear about counting the intent of the voters. None of that! They just wanted me to rule in a way that their candidate will win. It was extremely important that a judge would be sitting up there, above that, cutting through the chaff and looking at what the Constitution and what the law required, and let the chips fall where they may. And that’s my approach.”
Labarga ordered the Palm Beach County canvassing board to review irregular ballots by hand to determine voter intent and refused to allow a new vote on the grounds that the Constitution stated that an election must be held everywhere in the United States on the same day. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court cut off the recount before it could be completed, and Republican candidate George W. Bush defeated Democratic candidate Al Gore by 537 votes.
“I somehow feel that I may have done the right thing. Because I completely irritated both major political parties,” Labarga said. Word got back to him that both the Republican and Democratic parties were looking for people to run against him.
“I must have done my job.”
Labarga, who once he became a judge switched from Republican to no-party affiliation as a voter, said matter-of-factly: “If I am voted out of office, I will just go out and practice law and quadruple my income. My wife will be happy. The children will get new cars.
“But as long as I’m a judge, I am going to do what I think is right, what the law says is right. People may disagree with me on that. That’s fine. Reasonable people can disagree about complicated things. But don’t disagree with me about my devotion to integrity in interpreting the law.”
Cracking a smile, he said: “The day the case came to Tallahassee was the happiest day of my life. I saw that yellow Ryder truck [carrying the disputed ballots] heading north on the Turnpike, and I thought: ‘Thank God! It’s their turn now.’”
Doug Duncan, Labarga’s former law partner in West Palm Beach who first met him in 1980, said Bush v. Gore “epitomizes who he is. He decided it without regard to outcome or politics. His decision was based on the law and was affirmed by all the appellate courts. The court can be proud to have a chief justice of his caliber.”
In a more recent case that hit close to home — Florida Board of Bar Examiners Re: Question as to Whether Undocumented Immigrants Are Eligible for Admission to The Florida Bar — Labarga wrote a concurring opinion in March about the legal quagmire of applicant José Manuel Godinez-Samperio, an honors graduate who came from Mexico with his parents at age nine. Because the Florida Supreme Court said it was bound by the supremacy of federal law, it could not allow him to become a Florida lawyer, absent an allowable override by the Florida Legislature, which did not then exist.
Eloquently, Labarga observed: “Indeed, in many respects, [Godinez-Samperio’s] life in the United States parallels my own. He and I were brought to this great nation as young children by our hardworking immigrant parents….Both of us were driven by the opportunities this great nation offered to realize the American dream. Sadly, however, here the similarities end and the perceptions of our accomplishments begin.”
Noting that he and his parents were “perceived as defectors from a tyrannical communist regime,” Labarga wrote: “We were received with open arms, our arrival celebrated, and my path to citizenship and the legal profession unimpeded by public policy decisions.
“Applicant, however, who is perceived to be a defector from poverty, is viewed negatively because his family sought an opportunity for economic prosperity. It is this distinction of perception, a distinction that I cannot justify regarding admission to The Florida Bar, that is at the root of [a]pplicant’s situation.
“Applicant is so near to realizing his goals yet so agonizingly far because, regrettably, unlike the California Legislature, the Florida Legislature has not exercised its considerable authority on this important question. Thus, only reluctantly do I concur with the majority decision,” Labarga wrote.
At the gavel-passing ceremony, Justice Barbara Pariente said: “I was so proud of you, Justice Labarga, for speaking so directly and powerfully. And I was proud to stand with you. You knew, however, that as strongly as you felt, this court was bound by the law and we were not to let our personal preferences affect our decisions. So you reluctantly concurred with the majority. The legislature heard your words and passed legislation designed to allow this applicant to be admitted to The Florida Bar.”
The courtroom broke into applause.
Pariente described the role of chief justice as the leader, spokesperson, and representative of the judicial branch in its dealings with the executive and legislative branches, seeking to foster cooperation.
“The fact we have the other branches represented here today speaks volumes of the mutual respect that exists and will continue to be fostered during Justice Labarga’s tenure as chief justice,” Pariente said.
‘The Jew, the Episcopalian, and the Cuban-American’
Labarga has also earned the respect of Florida lawyers, largely because he has experience from so many perspectives: assistant public defender, assistant state attorney, personal injury trial lawyer who started his own law firm, trial judge, and Fourth District Court of Appeal judge for one day, when in 2009, then Gov. Charlie Crist elevated Labarga to the Supreme Court. Labarga has drawn on his vast array of legal experience in deciding cases.
“If I learned anything from the public defender’s office, it is that even the worst of the worst must have counsel and a fair and impartial trial,” Labarga said. “And let a jury decide whether they are guilty or not. That is vital to the existence of our democracy.”
He was lured away from that first job out of law school by Judge Sandra McSorley, who was an assistant state attorney at that time.
“His work ethic, attention to detail, and keen legal instincts caused me to ultimately persuade him to join the State Attorney’s Office, where he served with distinction. However, his personality became a theme within the office,” she said.
“He was the ultimate prankster, which consequently made him the prime target of reciprocal pranks. He always took everything with good humor, which in turn contributed to the esprit de corps of that office.
“Nonetheless, the seriousness with which he attended to his public duties was always paramount. No one was more diligent, organized, or well prepared than Jorge Labarga,” Judge McSorley said.
When David Roth was a partner at Cone, Wagner, Nugent, Roth, Romano & Ericksen practicing criminal law, he met young Assistant State Attorney Labarga.
“He was extremely intelligent, and exceptionally hardworking and reasonable. In other words, he could separate the serious case from the less serious case. He could recommend a harsh sentence when appropriate and a more lenient sentence when appropriate,” Roth said.
In 1987, Labarga joined Roth’s firm, practicing personal injury trial work. And in 1992, Roth said, “We decided the Jew, the Episcopalian, and the Cuban-American would start our own firm: Roth, Duncan and Labarga in West Palm Beach.”
The Pull of Public Service
Labarga decided to return to public service, and in 1996, Gov. Lawton Chiles chose him to become a 15th Circuit judge, a role he perfected by being hyper-prepared and controlling his courtroom, recalled Florida Bar President Greg Coleman, of West Palm Beach, who has known him more than 25 years.
“It’s a delicate balance for a trial court judge to be nice to everyone and keep order. He was one of the few who had mastered it,” Coleman said. “But there were certain times his patience would get tested.”
One famous story Coleman told was when two legal titans of Palm Beach County — Joe Farish and Bob Montgomery, both now deceased — were opposing counsel in Labarga’s courtroom for a nonjury trial.
“They were wealthy and cantankerous, and when I say they were titans, back in their day, they were the absolute pinnacle of Palm Beach County trial lawyers,” Coleman said.
Farish shows up for trial with a cast on his leg, in a wheelchair pushed by an assistant.
Montgomery jumps up: “I object! This is theater! He is just trying to elicit sympathy. I want you to order him to unzip that cast and try this case like a man! Only a chicken sits in a wheelchair and tries to elicit sympathy with a zip-up cast!”
“Most judges would come unglued. But Judge Labarga just smiled and shook his head, and said, ‘Mr. Farish, does that cast have a zipper? No? Begin oral arguments.’”
Recalling a “high-profile, monster case” he was involved in before Judge Labarga, Coleman said then Attorney General Bob Butterworth filed a lawsuit to prevent the owners of St. Mary’s Medical Center and Good Samaritan Hospital from transferring the trauma unit from the poorer part of West Palm Beach to the more affluent part of town. Coleman and Mike Burman represented the hospitals, and it was a huge case that ordinarily would have taken years to litigate.
“We got in front of Judge Labarga. He looked at Butterworth and looked at us, and said, ‘This is so important. I want it tried in 90 days.’
“We asked, ‘How are we going to do it in 90 days?’ And Judge Labarga said, basically, ‘You figure it out.’”
“It was a case of paramount public importance. He was brave to do what he did,” Coleman said.
The case settled, with the trauma unit staying where it was, and the owners selling the hospitals.
“Some judges would not have the fortitude to make a call like that. It was the absolute right call to make,” Coleman said. “That’s what makes him a great judge. His integrity is off the charts.”
Judge McSorley said Labarga “became a magnet for fellow judges to seek his opinion because he was always up-to-date with recent appellate decisions. He was always so well organized and meticulous in that regard, as evidenced by the scores of loose-leaf notebooks he prepared outlining virtually all legal issues faced by trial judges.
“Yet that irreverent sense of humor consistently prevailed during his tenure as a circuit judge. He regularly signed his handwritten notes to his colleagues with his adopted moniker: ‘IT.’”
“‘IT’ was born when an admiring court observer wrote a complimentary note that ended with the superlative summary: ‘Judge Labarga, you are ‘IT.’ What else is there to say?”
“Raise your hand if you’ve heard this story before.”
Poor Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, a colorful storyteller, hears that a lot.
“He gets mad when we raise our hands at the dinner table,” said daughter Stephanie Labarga. “He made the mistake of telling my sister and me that one of the judges said to raise your hand if you’ve heard that story before. So he’s getting it at lunch and from his own family at the dinner table. They are good stories the first 10 times.”
And here it came again, at the Passing of the Gavel Ceremony at the Florida Supreme Court on June 30, when Justice Barbara Pariente told the crowd: “Raise your hand if you’ve heard the Marco Rubio story,” referring to the junior U.S. senator from Florida with presidential aspirations.
“Raise your hand if you’ve heard the Marco Rubio story two times,” Pariente said looking over the crowded courtroom as hands flew up.
“Three times? Enough said.”
When it was Labarga’s turn to speak, he wadded up a piece of paper, laughed, and said, “So much for telling my Marco Rubio story!”
For those of you who haven’t heard the story before, Florida Bar President Greg Coleman says it goes like this:
Soon after Labarga was appointed as a Florida Supreme Court justice, he was in Miami at a luncheon sitting with a group of lawyers, when a woman at the next table came over and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Can I chat with you a moment?” she asked.
“Of course,” Labarga answered.
She starts to gush about how proud she is of his accomplishments, and says that she has closely followed his career.
“It went on and on for five minutes,” Coleman said. “And Justice Labarga was very gracious and thanks her. But then he overhears her at the next table say to her friends: ‘You’re not going to believe it! I just met Marco Rubio!’”
Coleman shares this favorite story from Bush v. Gore : One of the first hearings before then 15th Circuit Judge Labarga was held in a large courtroom, where then County Judge Peter Evans presided, because it was wired for closed-circuit television for the overflow media to watch the proceedings.
“Justice Labarga was doing his best to control the chaos surrounding this very important matter. The entire country sat anxiously in front of their televisions sizing up this Palm Beach County circuit court judge, who would likely determine who our next president would be,” Coleman said.
“There’s a famous picture on the front page of The Palm Beach Post showing Judge Labarga that first day on the bench, sitting next to a banana tree and a prominently displayed book titled, Small Claims Survival Guide.
“This, of course, led to an outpouring of support from our late-night talk show hosts, who stated how comfortable they were that Judge Labarga would decide who our next president would be by utilizing the rules of small claims court,” Coleman recounted.
“He took the good-natured ribbing in stride. Of course, that’s one of his best traits.”
Now, Justice Labarga’s embellishments:
“Remember, the O.J. Simpson trial had taken place five years before that. And The Tonight Show with Jay Leno had this thing called the ‘Dancing Itos,’ for Judge Ito. He had a bunch of Asian guys dressed in robes, and they would dance every night,” Labarga said.
“Then, Jay Leno is going on and on about Florida being a Banana Republic. And here we have a Cuban-born judge presiding over a presidential case, where next to me was a bowl of flowers that this judge had on the bench for whatever reason. And we were petrified that that night, on The Tonight Show, they would have me with a Carmen Miranda hat on dancing around. And good thing Jay Leno did not bite!”
Here’s one more good Labarga story from that blockbuster case, as told by Labarga himself:
“We did about two or three days of hearings and then I needed to write orders.
“So the night before I was going to be distributing the orders, I actually stayed in my office. It was around 10 o’clock at night and everything was quiet. I was wearing my jeans, sneakers, a University of Florida cap, and a sweatshirt. I decided to take a walk.
“The Palm Beach County Courthouse is 11 stories high, and you have this panoramic view of the Intracoastal and the ocean. It’s just drop-dead beautiful. But as I looked down, as far as my eyes could see, were satellite dishes, and the entire media world was present.
“Each one had a little booth. It’s around 10 at night. They have this 24/7 news cycle and they are now interviewing each other! They had nothing else!
“So I said to myself, ‘You know what? I bet I can walk down there and nobody recognizes me.’ And I did! I took a walk, just to rest my brain a bit. And the woman from CNN and now with FOX, Greta van Susteren, was on live.
“I could see the lights were on and she was talking to the studio. I’m standing behind her, not realizing I am on live TV. They are asking her questions about me. I could hear her say, ‘All we know about him is he was born in Cuba and came as a little boy, and blah, blah, blah.’
“I am standing right behind her listening to that. Of course, everybody watching at home is saying, ‘That’s him!’
“She had no clue. I saw a couple of local lawyers walking around and I thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to make me.’ I just ran back to the courthouse and went back to protected quarters.”
Firefighters and police officers making $40,000 a year can’t afford to hire a lawyer when their homes are in foreclosure.
Some court employees, who haven’t had cost-of-living raises in more than seven years, had to resort to food stamps.
Jorge Labarga gives those examples when he describes his two major projects during his two-year term as chief justice.
Access to Justice
Working with Florida Bar President Greg Coleman, Labarga will head 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.
They will engage CEOs at major corporations for help.
“We can’t just rely on the taxpayers. And we can’t just rely on the Bar to help with this. This is a general societal problem,” Labarga said. “We’re not just talking about access to justice by the poor. We’re talking about the middle class. The firefighter who puts in long hours. The police officer who puts in long hours. And they’re making $40,000 to $45,000 a year trying to raise a family. If they get involved in some kind of legal matter, they can’t afford to pay a lawyer $200, $300, $400 an hour.”
The business community should want to get involved in solving the crisis, Labarga said, because “it’s in their best interest to have the people who work for them, and the people who make their products for them to make money, to also have access to justice, so they can live a happy life and they are productive workers.
“Imagine going through a horrendous divorce, or your home is in foreclosure, and you can somehow get out of it if you can hire a lawyer to help you. If you can just take that weight off their shoulders and have them concentrate on the job they are supposed to be doing, one would think the business community would want that,” Labarga said.
“It is also the right thing to do in Florida.”
Labarga said other states have “ventured into this area with the private sector and have been successful at it. We’re going to look into those models, as well, and see how we can implement them here in Florida.”
Cost of Living Raises for Court Employees
The other major project during Labarga’s two years as chief justice is the same one his predecessors had: Making sure that the legislature properly funds the judicial branch of government.
“We basically have been doing it on the cheap for a long time because the economy has been so bad. And Florida’s Constitution requires a balanced budget every year. When the money wasn’t coming in, cuts had to be made, and we went through severe cuts.
“Our entire budget used to be seven-tenths of 1 percent of the entire state budget. It is now six-tenths of 1 percent of the entire state budget. We need to get back on track. It should be about eight-tenths of 1 percent or nine-tenths of 1 percent.
“Florida trails other states severely, on the percentage the judicial branch is of the state budget. New York, for example, is over 1 percent of the entire state budget.
“The legislature, to its credit, has been working with us, over the last two or three years, to restore a lot of the money that was cut during the really horrendous times. We had some really bad years where the money just wasn’t coming in. The legislature had to act. I think they know we participated in every way we could to help them out during the bad times. A lot of people were laid off. A lot of people lost their jobs. And it was a horrible, horrible time. We took a 2 percent cut in our salary.
“Judges haven’t had a raise — even a cost of living raise — in over seven years. So we have people basically working at the same level as they were seven years ago,” Labarga said.
He noted that his own judicial salary has dipped from $163,000 when he came to the Supreme Court in 2009, to $151,000 this year, “mostly because we are now paying more for our pension,” said Labarga, who in 2013 wrote the landmark 4-3 decision upholding a law requiring state employees to contribute to their pensions for the first time.
“We have people in the judicial branch who work extremely hard, especially at the trial court level. We have judicial assistants who, in Miami, where the cost of living is much higher, were actually being helped with food stamps….
“We have employees here at the Supreme Court who have been offered jobs paying them much more. Out of loyalty and love of their jobs, they have decided to stay. But that is one area that we need to work on because we need to attract people that come to the bench, who obviously are qualified to come on the bench. And to attract those kinds of people, there has to be some kind of give and take. They are going to be giving up a lot of money to come here, regardless of how much we pay them. But the pain has to be a little less.
“It looks like the economy is showing every sign of recovery. We now have two or three years of positive climbing in the economy. Now that times are getting better, I am hoping that we will start getting back on track again to at least getting the cost-of-living raises every year that I think people who work very hard deserve.”
•Assistant public defender, 15th Judicial Circuit, West Palm Beach (1979-82)
•Assistant state attorney, 15th Judicial Circuit, West Palm Beach (1982-87)
•Cone, Wagner, Nugent, Roth, Romano & Ericksen, West Palm Beach, focusing on personal injury trial work (1987-92)
•Roth, Duncan, and Labarga, West Palm Beach, founding partner, focusing on personal injury trial work (1992-96)
•Gov. Lawton Chiles appoints him to the circuit court of the 15th Judicial Circuit (1996)
•Gov. Charlie Crist appoints him to the Fourth District Court of Appeal (2008)
•Gov. Charlie Crist appoints him to the Florida Supreme Court (2009)
•Forest Hill High School, West Palm Beach (1972)
•University of Florida, Bachelor’s degree in political science (1976); Juris doctorate (1979)
•Born in Cuba in 1952 to Miriam and Jorge Labarga, Sr.
•Married to Zulma R. Labarga, and they have two daughters, Stephanie and Caroline