Justice Lagoa sworn in
Barbara Lagoa, former chief judge of the Third District Court of Appeal and the first Cuban-American woman to serve on the state’s highest court, was lauded and sometimes gently ribbed in the Supreme Court’s courtroom jammed with friends, colleagues, family, and well-wishers.
She took the ceremonial oath from her father-in-law, U.S. Southern District Senior Judge Paul C. Huck, Sr., surrounded by her husband, Paul C. Huck, Jr., and three daughters, Claudia, Eloise, and Camilla.
Lagoa was the first of three picks made by Gov. Ron DeSantis in January to vacancies opened by retirements from the court.
“It was pretty clear that this was somebody who is a top flight legal talent, really understood the proper role of the court, and would do a great job here,” the governor said.
Noting she was born in Florida a year after her parents fled Cuba in 1966, DeSantis said, “What really impressed me the most was just how ingrained the rule of law was in her experience. We’re standing there at the Freedom Tower [in Miami, where DeSantis announced Lagoa’s appointment the day after his inauguration] and that’s where her parents and so many other Cuban exiles showed up, fleeing Castro’s tyranny and communism. You didn’t have a rule of law at that point, it was basically whatever the dictator demanded.
“Coming out of that experience, I think people like Barbara really appreciate that we’re a government of law and not of individual men and their whims and desires. It’s fidelity to the law, fidelity to the Constitution which has been ultimately the indispensable element of preserving freedom in our country and here in the state of Florida. Justice Lagoa exemplifies that. She’s lived that.”
U.S. Southern District Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Becerra grew up in East Hialeah near Lagoa and attended Immaculate Conception Catholic School with her in Hialeah, where Lagoa was a star student and a favorite of the nuns who cast Lagoa as the lead in the annual play, “La Virgen de Guadalupe.” [Becerra today still jokingly calls her friend the Virgin of Guadalupe, or VoG for short, while Lagoa may refer to Becerra by her role in the same play, a peasant flautist.]
The two worked in private practice at the same firm and later together at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District, where Becerra recalled she interviewed Lagoa for the job, but after a couple minutes, it seemed like Lagoa was interviewing her.
“Barbara was a well-respected member of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for her intelligence, her writing talents, and her unwavering commitment to the law,” Becerra said. “She had been a star daughter, a star student, and certainly a star lawyer.
“But Barbara is also a star friend. Barbara is the kind of friend that you call. You call in good times. You call her for a good story. You call her for a joke, but by God you call her when you need someone. Because there is no one who will pull out the stops the way Barbara will when you need her. She’s always there with sage advice, unlimited time, and if she has to, she will bend ears, twist arms, and break legs.”
Longtime friend Eliot Pedrosa, the U.S. alternate executive director of the Inter-American Development Bank, gave a numerical accounting of Lagoa’s achievements:
• 11,350, the number of cases she participated in since joining the Third DCA in 2006.
• 469, the number of her written opinions on the Third DCA.
• 1992, the year she graduated from Columbia law school.
• 11 and 13, the ages of her daughters.
• Two, the number of times in her judicial nominating commission interview Lagoa referred to herself as a nerd.
Lagoa is also a fan of the original Star Wars trilogy without the later revisions, as well as the Marvel Comics superhero universe, which Pedrosa said is appropriate.
“Today, Barbara takes her place among Florida’s mightiest heroes. Like her onscreen analogs, she runs toward our problems, not away from them because that’s what heroes do,” he said. “It’s through her continued service and sacrifice and that of the other justices on the court and that of the judges of the inferior courts and that of the legislators and the members of the executive, co-equal branches of government, sometimes working together but always in check and with balance, that liberty will be preserved and justice secured.”
Attorney Corali Lopez-Castro recounted her long-time friendship with Lagoa and that she once gave Lagoa and others in a circle of friends an “easy button” from the well-known TV ad.
“I pretended they all needed it, but it was really for Barbara,” she said. “One of the things Barbara has failed at is pressing the easy button.”
Lopez-Castro recalled when she and her husband were chairs of the Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart parent’s organization, where her and Lagoa’s children attend, and Lagoa was on the board and in charge of planning the staff appreciation dinner with a Wizard of Oz theme.
The result was flower arrangements with replica hot air balloons and chairs covered in silk and hours and hours of work.
“Yes, she required us to stay at school very late until it was perfect,” Lopez-Castro said. “She would not press the easy button.”
That passion is also reflected in her Christmas and Halloween decorations, including one year when the family was about to move into a new house and Lagoa took the opportunity to turn the entire – then empty – structure into a haunted mansion.
“Her father said, ‘I knew she would do something special,’” Lopez-Castro said. “You know why? Because you don’t press the easy button.”
Florida Bar President Michelle Suskauer presented Lagoa, as is tradition, with a Bible on behalf of the Bar for her swearing-in ceremony — appropriate she said since the Old Testament Book of Judges includes the story of Deborah, a female judge in antiquity.
“Alexander Hamilton said the first duty of society is justice. So, who we choose to dispense that justice is a fundamental reflection of who we are as a society,” Suskauer said. “We’re here celebrating the selection of Barbara Lagoa as a justice of the Florida Supreme Court and for that wise choice, we thank the members of the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission and Gov. DeSantis.”
Lagoa’s selection also was praised by Roland Sanchez-Medina, past president of the Cuban American Bar Association, who lauded Lagoa’s selection as the first female Cuban American on the court, which also includes another Cuban-American member, Justice Jorge Labarga.
“For CABA, which is mostly comprised of Cuban immigrants and the daughters and sons of Cuban immigrants, we take a lot of pride in this,” he said. “This affirms what a great country we live in. How does one thank a country that allows for dreams like this to become a reality.. . ? Frankly, I don’t know of another immigrant group that sings ‘God Bless America’ with more passion and more fervor than Cuban Americans.”
Sanchez-Medina added, “A wonderful thing is happening to a wonderful lady. I have no doubt you will continue to make us very, very proud.”
Lagoa thanked her family, friends, the Third DCA, and the justices on the court for making her feel welcome. She also talked about the challenges of the job.
“I understand the significance and responsibility that comes with this appointment as the first Hispanic female justice, the first Cuban-American female justice, and the fourth woman to sit on this court since its formation in 1845 when Florida became a state,” Lagoa said. “Many of those in this room are the children and grandchildren of individuals who fled from dictatorship. For many of us first-generation Americans, our parents took whatever job they could find in order to provide for us. And while their lives may not have been what they dreamt of when they were growing up, their dreams did not die. Through hard work, education, faith, and a strong community, they succeeded.. . .
“Because of the shared experiences of our parents and grandparents many of us in this room have a special appreciation for the rule of law. Because we understand what it means when individual liberties, respect for private property, and basic human rights are abandoned by a government. And this is why the oath I just took is not just words on a piece of paper to me. I am particularly mindful of my obligation under our constitutional system of separated powers. Unlike the country my parents fled, we are a nation of laws and not of men.”