Monday, October 26, 2009

Labarga homesick, but enjoying high court


Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Monday, October 19, 2009

Life is very different now for state Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga.

The former local judge had to adjust to being part of Florida's highest judicial power, which means long hours reading transcripts and going over challenging death penalty cases.

But it's the little changes that Labarga highlights when he talks about his first 10 months in Tallahassee.

He walks to work on cool mornings, since his apartment is only a couple blocks away from his chambers. He enjoys Tallahassee's old oak trees and rolling hills during his workouts. He is even driving greener, trading in his SUV for a more fuel-efficient Toyota Corolla that makes his monthly road trips to Wellington to see his wife and two daughters much more affordable.

"The only complaint I have is that I am too far away," Labarga said. "There aren't many flights, and a trip from here to West Palm Beach can cost up to $600.

"I'd like to live in (Tallahassee), but I don't want to loose my contacts back home. I'm kind of torn," added Labarga, who joined the court in January.

For now, Labarga spends three weeks out of the month in the state's capital, and comes to West Palm Beach five or six days. He will be in town Friday, when the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce presents a plaque from the Palm Beach County Commission in honor of Labarga's work.

Labarga admits he spends endless hours working in his office, even on weekends.

"The Supreme Court is a difficult job because you work with so many different things," he said. "About 75 percent of the cases we work with have to do with the death penalty, and they involve many complicated legal issues and require a lot of work."

The 56-year-old jurist admits that having to attend two executions since he joined the Supreme Court has been an "eerie" experience.

"It's very easy to be in favor of the death penalty when you don't have to work with it," he said, adding that his experience as a trial judge has been a key to his success on the high court.

"Up here, we write these opinions and work in legal terms. Sometimes, unless you've been at a trial level, you don't know how these theories impact practicality," he said.

Born in Havana, Labarga fled Cuba with his parents in 1963, and eventually settled in Pahokee, where his father worked in a sugar mill. He graduated from Forest Hill High School in 1972 and attended college and law school at the University of Florida.

Labarga practiced as a criminal defense attorney, prosecutor and civil litigator before being appointed a judge about 13 years ago and presiding over civil, criminal and family court cases. In the 2000 presidential election, Labarga ruled that constitutional rules did not allow for a re-vote following the issues with Palm Beach County's controversial "butterfly ballots".

Prior to his Supreme Court appointment, Labarga had been appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to the state's Fourth District Court of Appeal.

Although he sometimes misses the courtroom and listening to the evidence in a murder or robbery case, Labarga says he is happy as a Supreme Court Justice.

"It's (the Supreme Court) is really intellectually satisfying," he said.

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