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Couriel ceremonially sworn in as a justice of the Florida Supreme Court

Senior Editor News in Photos
Justice Couriel

Justice John Couriel was ceremonially sworn-in as the 90th justice of the Florida Supreme Court October 7 in the courtroom at the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee. Couriel, the son of Cuban exiles, was appointed to the court by Gov. Ron DeSantis on June 1, 2020. His investiture was delayed by the pandemic. With him is his wife, Dr. Rebecca Toonkel, and there two children, Jonas and Eden.

Justice John Couriel is the most fully “invested” justice to ceremonially join the Florida Supreme Court in its 175-year history. Sort of a veteran inductee.

As Chief Justice Charles Canady noted in introductory remarks, Couriel’s October 7 ceremonial investiture came 16 months after he actually joined the court, the intervening delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is the 90th investiture to occur in a history that now stretches back 175 years,” the chief justice noted. “It is the first investiture in this court’s history to be delayed because of a pandemic.”

Justice Couriel and Family

Justice Couriel and family share a moment after taking the oath.

That pause didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Couriel’s family, friends, former colleagues, and others who packed the court to sing his praises and poke more than a little good-natured fun at the justice.

“John and I have been best friends literally since kindergarten,” said Nelson Diaz. “John approached me on the basketball court at St. Timothy’s Catholic Elementary School and announced that he was going to be president. And since at the time I didn’t know what a homeowners association was, I assumed he meant of the United States….

“Ever since that day almost four decades ago, I can say that this man, this father, this son, this husband, has lived every day trying to ensure that everything he said and everything he did merited the approval of his family and of God…. No matter what the circumstances, no matter what the pressures, John always strives to do the right thing, to thoroughly think things through, and to thoughtfully analyze everything.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who presented the investiture order to Canady, noted that he and Couriel overlapped by a year at the Harvard Law School, although he doesn’t recall meeting him.

“If you had told me at that time that in 20 years, I would be governor of Florida appointing someone who was also on the Harvard campus [to the court], I would have taken the under on that one,” DeSantis said.

He added that Couriel, as a son of Cuban immigrants, has a special understanding of the importance of the legal system.

“I think our Cuban exile community in South Florida, they understand freedom is only one generation away from being extinct. You’ve got to fight for it,” DeSantis said. “When you have a written constitution, it lists the different authorities that a legislature would have, or an executive would have. They’re not always going to stay within those bounds, rights are going to be infringed. What’s the recourse? The recourse tends to be courts of law.

Gov. Ron DeSantis

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Justice Couriel, as a son of Cuban immigrants, has a special understanding of the importance of the legal system and understands the proper role of the courts.

“Having a court [and] justices that understand the proper role of the court is very important. John clearly does that.”

Barbara Llanes, a Couriel friend since high school when they were on debate teams, joked that with his serious demeanor, “From the time John was born, he was careening toward middle age.”

But he was also generous and helped other debaters with his research and debating tips.

“Because of John, I became a better debater and a better, deeper thinker,” Llanes said. “There is one important thing John understood from an early age. And that is success is sweetest when we share it with others. It means more and runs deeper when you use your own success to elevate those around you…. That mentality is something that characterizes John to this day.”

Longtime friend Maximo Alvarez, father of one of Couriel’s childhood friends, recalled that not only was he a Boy Scout, but an Eagle Scout because that reflected his devotion to public service. That was also shown because instead of going to the beach in the summer, he would be painting churches or participating in other civic projects, he said.

“John’s commitment to public life, public service, runs deep and is part of who he is. He would never be content to be in the private sector knowing he could make a difference as a public servant. It’s that desire that makes him the best at what he does,” Alvarez said.

Steven Kobre, a founding partner at Kobre & Kim where Couriel became a partner after leaving the Southern District of Florida’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, said it was understood that Couriel would eventually leave the firm and return to public service.

Shortly after Couriel joined the firm, it was hired to be the independent investigator for the panel reviewing Puerto Rico’s financial crisis to determine not only what had gone wrong but how it could be prevented in the future. Couriel led the firm’s effort.

“Our role in this process was to be independent, do it with integrity, apply the rule of law in what could have otherwise been a very, very tense situation,” Kobre said. “John was our leader in that matter…. John actually had an ability to bring people together with different points of view and all work toward a common good.”

The panel produced a 608-page, widely praised report in less than a year, he said.

Justice Couriel robed

Justice Couriel and family adjust his robe.

“John represents all that is good about our profession. He’s an extremely hard worker, has tremendous integrity, is extremely kind, respected, motivating, has tremendous judgment, and is a great leader,” Kobre said. “How refreshing it is today in this polarized world to have somebody to ascend to this position who really brings people together rather than separates them.”

Bar President Michael Tanner and immediate Past President Dori Foster-Morales attended the ceremony, and Foster-Morales followed Bar tradition by presenting Couriel with a holy book to use in his swearing in.

She read three Biblical passages, including Psalm 82:3: “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed,” and Proverbs 1:3: “To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity.”

“May God continue to bless you with wisdom and compassion,” Foster-Morales said.

A. Dax Bello, president of the Cuban American Bar Association, noted that Couriel’s father, John, Sr., was a refugee from Cuba who came to Miami in 1961 at the age of 10 as part of Operation Pedro Pan, which brought 14,000 Cuban children to the U.S.

“This nation gave John Couriel’s father every opportunity he needed to live a successful life, to raise a successful family, and we’re here today for the son of a refugee’s appointment as the 90th Supreme Court justice of the great state of Florida,” Bello said.

Two of Couriel’s immediate predecessors on the Supreme Court played a role on his various swearing in ceremonies. Former Justice Barbara Lagoa, who Couriel replaced on the court, did his initial oath administration in Couriel’s driveway. Both wore robes and, as Couriel recounted it, passing drivers honked, probably thinking they were in a virtual high school graduation ceremony.

“It was the best commencement of my life,” Couriel said.

Former Justice Robert Luck, who like Lagoa now sits on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and with her joined the Supreme Court early in 2019, administered the oath at the ceremonial session.

Luck talked about the importance of the oath, which represents a public commitment by a justice to fulfill the constitutional duties of the office. He noted he kept a laminated copy of his justice oath, which he passed along to Couriel.

Justice Couriel and his wife Dr

Justice Couriel and his wife, Dr. Rebecca Toonkel, listen as family, friends, former colleagues, and others who packed the court sang his praises and poked more than a little good-natured fun at the justice.

“John committed long ago, as long as I’ve known him over the past 27 years, to serve our Constitution and government and do so well and faithfully,” Luck said. “…It is part of John’s lifetime commitment to serving this great state.”

Couriel used his time at the end of the ceremony to thank a plethora of people, including teachers and fellow primary and secondary school classmates, college professors and classmates, colleagues and mentors in his private and public jobs, and particularly his family.

“Those of us who ourselves arrived in this country or remember our relatives who did, often say that we owe a debt to America that we can never repay,” Couriel said. “But America did more than loan me something, it invested in me. I thank you Governor [DeSantis] for putting me where, with God’s help, the return on that investment can be greatest.”

Couriel is married to Dr. Rebecca Toonkel, and they have two children, Jonas and Eden (who led the Pledge of Allegiance at the ceremonial session).

He received his A.B. and law degree from Harvard, the latter in 2003, and clerked for Judge John D. Bates of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He worked for Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York City before joining the U.S. attorney’s office in 2009 as an assistant U.S. attorney. In 2013, he joined Kobre & Kim, where he worked until joining the court.

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