Judged on Merit: Jorge Labarga (JD 79)

As Jorge Labarga (JD 79) prepared to become the 56th chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court on July 1, he talked to UF LAW about what must be done to maintain the quality of Florida’s judiciary, how the sevenmember high court decides cases and why he — the first Cuban-American to serve as chief justice — never became a Major League pitcher.The interview has been condensed and edited.

Q. What have you learned about the law since becoming a justice in 2009?

A. I have learned that it is the glue that holds our democracy together. We are a country of laws, not men or women, and we have to live by the law.

Q. What is the toughest decision you have made as a Supreme Court justice and what made it so tough?

A. The thing about being a judge on the Supreme Court is that all cases are tough in one way or another. Our decisions not only affect the parties directly but also affect the jurisprudence of our state law. One day, it could be a land use case, or the next day it could be a death penalty case or a medical malpractice case or a divorce case.

Q. You were appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, and in your opinions, you sometimes side with the more liberal members of the court and at other times the more conservative ones. Describe your judicial philosophy.

A. The only philosophy I have as a judge is the same philosophy I’ve always had since I was a trial judge: to judge each case by the merits of the case. My colleagues and I may disagree on the merits of what the case may be, but all seven of us work very hard and try to do the right thing. Our decisions are intellectually based. I have yet to see politics enter into any decision since I’ve been here. Some people call me a swing vote. I don’t know that I am that. It’s just that each case, in my book, is different, and each case should be judged differently based on the facts of the case.

Q. As a boy in Cuba, your family was the victim of the knock by police in the middle of the night — politically motivated harassment by the Castro regime. Is that experience relevant to Florida justice in 2014?

A. Absolutely. Every judge is a human being, and all of us are shaped by our experience in life. The mere fact that soldiers would come into someone’s house in the middle of the night without even so much as a knock and begin to ransack the house searching for someone who they were clearly told wasn’t there — my father — that experience obviously affected my view on our Constitution that prohibits illegal searches and seizure. In the United States, obviously police can’t just go kicking down peoples’ door without a search warrant. So it affected me to appreciate our Constitutional guarantees to protect us from, in some instances, overzealous police work.

I remember, as a little boy, we arrived in this country in 1963 shortly before JFK was assassinated. And after the assassination, I remember my dad used to take my mom and my two brothers and me for a drive every night, and we would drive around town. I was mentioning to my father that the kids at school are saying that Lyndon Johnson had JFK assassinated so he could be president — one of those silly things that kids talk about. And my father pulled the car over, and he and my mother turned around and started pretty much telling me ‘Don’t you ever say that again. The government will think that your parents are telling you that, and the government will come and get your father and take him away.’

Clearly in the United States, that’s way over the top, but you have to think of where they came from, to believe that a child’s loose lips could sink a parent.

Q. How will your responsibilities change as chief justice?

A. I will still have the same caseload that I have now. I will also be the administrative justice of the judicial branch of the state of Florida. I will be responsible for making sure that we are given a proper budget, that the judicial branch is running efficiently and properly and so on. It’s going to add a lot more work—especially when the Legislature is in session. And they consider our budget every year, and we want to make sure the judicial branch is funded properly.

Q. What do you hope to accomplish during your term as chief justice?

A. I have no specific pet projects. My pet project is to manage this branch as efficiently as possible and to make sure the taxpayer’s money is not wasted in any respect. And also to get the necessary funds in order for this branch to operate properly. We also need to have our salaries up to a level that attracts qualified people to come and preside as judges. It is difficult for a lawyer in private practice to meet with his or her family and tell them, ‘I want to be a judge. Now we have to live on one-quarter or one-half of what I’m making now in private practice.’ My big project is to convince the Legislature to provide us with the necessary funds and additional funds now that the economy is improving.

Q. Now let me go to your time at UF. What is your favorite memory as a UF Law student in the late 1970s?

A. I actually liked law school. I actually enjoyed the discussions, all the way from something as basic as Marbury v. Madison to something as complicated as a corporations case the second and third year in law school. I enjoyed the discussions in class, the intellectual interest in class. I did not enjoy the exams very much. I truly enjoyed law school. I miss that. I miss sitting in class and discussing these things back and forth with the students. I kind of get the same thing here. I enjoy the intellectual discussions my colleagues have in our conference over these cases. It reminds me of law school, where we basically discussed these cases back and forth until we were exhausted.

Q. You come back regularly to UF Law. Why is that important?

A. First and foremost, I love the University of Florida. I went there as an undergraduate, received my bachelor’s degree, and I received my law degree at the University of Florida. Any success I have today can be attributed directly to the opportunities my education has given me at the University of Florida. I enjoy being the only Gator on the court, and I like being around students and hearing from them about their concerns — not just the financial concerns that many students seem to have today with their loans, but their concerns on the law and their views on the law and their analytical skills. Justice Overton died last year, and he taught constitutional law. And Justice Pariente, Justice Canady and myself came down and taught that class one week at a time.

Q. If you weren’t a lawyer and judge, what would you be?

A. If I had been blessed with the physical ability, which I haven’t been, I would say a Major League pitcher. I like that because he is up there on the mound all by himself, and it is all up to him to throw the right pitches and make sure that the batter gets out.

Q. What advice would you give students and young lawyers who wish to follow in your path?

A. First thing is work very hard and enjoy what you do. It is a great profession, and one can do a lot of good in this profession, and, yes, can also make a lot of money, but it is something that you really can enjoy if you put your mind into it. And above everything else, conduct yourself in a professional manner at all times. If you do all those things, if you work hard, enjoy what you do and conduct yourself professionally, you eventually get on the path to being a judge. Of course, the positions are limited and many other people are going to be doing the same thing so luck has a lot to do with it, too. GATOR

CHIEF JUSTICES

Jorge Labarga (JD 79) is the 16th Gator lawyer to lead the Florida Supreme Court as chief justice.

The other 15 are:

  • Alto Adams (JD 21) 1949-51
  • Harold Sebring (JD 28) 1951-53
  • Bonny K. Roberts (JD 28) 1953-55, 1961- 63, 1971-73
  • Benjamin Campbell Thornal (JD 30) 1965-67
  • Stephen C. O’Connell (JD 40) 1967
  • Richard W. Ervin (JD 28) 1969-71
  • James C. Adkins (JD 38) 1974-76
  • Ben F. Overton (JD 52) 1976-78
  • James E. Alderman (JD 61) 1982-84
  • Parker Lee McDonald (JD 50) 1986-88
  • Raymond Ehrlich (JD 42) 1988-90
  • Rosemary Barkett (JD 70) 1992-94
  • Stephen H. Grimes (JD 54) 1994-96
  • Charles T. Wells (JD 64) 2000-02
  • Harry Lee Anstead (JD 63) 2002-04