Friday, January 2, 2009

Wellington judge appointed to Fla. Supreme Court

Wellington judge appointed to Fla. Supreme Court

Palm Beach Post Staff Writers

Friday, January 02, 2009

A self-described moderate with Republican roots, Labarga replaces Justice Harry Lee Anstead, widely considered one of the more liberal members of the court. Anstead was forced to step down after reaching the state's 70-year-old age limit.

"Judge Labarga brings to Florida's highest court all of the qualities needed in a justice, including integrity, fairness and compassion, as well as an added dimension of diversity," Crist said in a news release. "During his long career he has gained a great understanding of people from seeing firsthand the situations of those involved in the court system."

Labarga, 56, was first appointed a judge 13 years ago by then-Gov.

Lawton Chiles. He is third of four appointments Crist is expected to make to the seven-member court within six months.

He would be the only Hispanic member of the court after Raoul Cantero resigned in 2008.

The nomination comes after a controversial selection process, in which Labarga was a finalist for the prior two Supreme Court positions.

He appeared out of the running for the third opening when Crist appointed him to the 4th District Court of Appeal in December.

But days after the appointment, Crist asked the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission for a more diverse group of candidates.

After a contentious nominating commission meeting where some members questioned Crist's motives, a Cuban-American attorney from Miami, Frank Jimenez, was added to the list of nominees. That prompted suspicion that Labarga had been shoved aside for the more politically connected Jimenez, a former legal adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush.

After the meeting, a group of 17 high-powered lawyers sent a protest letter accusing the commission members of changing rules and running "afoul of the letter and spirit" of the law.

"As a friend, I am thrilled for him and thrilled for people of the state of Florida," said attorney Doug Duncan, Labarga's former law partner and chairman of Palm Beach County's Judicial Nominating Commission. "He is and will be an outstanding jurist."

Labarga said earlier this month that it's a "fact of life" that there is politics in everything. "But as far as it pertains to me, I haven't seen any politics at the judicial nominating level or at the governor's office," he said.

Labarga emigrated from Cuba with his family in 1963, eventually arriving in Pahokee where his father worked in a sugar mill. The family's first home was a shack that still stands today, he said.

After graduation from Forest Hill High School in 1972, Labarga attended both college and law school at the University of Florida.

As a lawyer and then judge, Labarga has been involved in cases that touch all areas of law. He has practiced as a criminal defense attorney, prosecutor and civil litigator before presiding over civil, criminal and family court cases.

He is probably most widely known for his role in 2000 presidential election, ruling that the constitutional rules did not allow for a re-vote following the butterfly ballot debacle.

Labarga included that ruling in his application for the state's high court, citing it as important opportunity to write about a constitutional issue of first impression.

The other cases cited in his application include tragedy and even danger. Labarga noted a divorce case he presided over where a father set himself on fire after losing custody of his children, but not before trying to hunt down Labarga, his ex-wife and child to take out with him.

"His extreme reaction to my ruling serves as a reminder to me of how judicial rulings directly affect the lives of citizens," Labarga wrote.

Labarga is expected to begin his term Tuesday, replacing Anstead, who is also from Palm Beach County.

"I am grateful to Governor Crist for recognizing the significance of my legal, practical and judicial experience," said Labarga said in a news release today. "It is a great honor to serve the people of Florida in a position that will have lasting impact on our judicial system and on society."

Labarga has said his wife and daughters will stay in Wellington for a while, but he must go on to Tallahassee.

"Do you know anyone who has an apartment to rent?" he said. "After all that, I may end up back in student housing."

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