Jorge Labarga
Jorge Labarga (PHIL SEARS)

Considering the Legislature’s performance on court funding, the most significant change in Chief Justice-elect Jorge Labarga’s life these next two years may be a drastic cut in commuting.

“It’s 419 miles from the garage of the Supreme Court to the garage of my house in Wellington,” Labarga said.

The state doesn’t provide airfare for justices, and Labarga said he couldn’t afford the $800 round-trip tickets, so he bought a Toyota Prius and has been driving north about once a month. Then there’s the drive back.

That’s about to end. Zulma Labarga, his wife, is house hunting and hopes to be a Tallahassee resident this spring.

What the Legislature does to help or hinder the courts is largely out of Labarga’s control, but his life has taken some sharp turns, so who knows what the future may bring? As the rookie appointee of former Gov. Charlie Crist, Labarga’s first assignment was assessing the governor’s role in judicial nominations.

Talk about biting the hand the feeds you: No sooner was Labarga on the bench than he had to tell Crist he couldn’t demand more nominations than the Fifth District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission was willing to give. That still makes Labarga laugh, but not in a mean way. It’s the irony that gets him.

Labarga has been on the bench more than five years and has been named the next chief justice to take over July 1. As chief justice, Labarga becomes the advocate for the judicial branch before the Legislature.

Help Needed

Lately, the judiciary hasn’t fared that well in the Legislature. When Charles Canady was chief justice in 2010-2012, he begged for funds to keep courthouses open. And the Legislature tried to split the court into separate civil and criminal courts and pack the court with Gov. Rick Scott’s appointees. Both measures failed.

Chief Justice Ricky Polston has presided over a less politically tumultuous period, but the court system has dealt with flat year-to-year budgets.

In 2011, the court certified a need for 72 new trial judges across the state. The Legislature provided none. In 2012, the annual December report was for 63 new judges. Again, nothing.

Last December, the court certified the need for 46 trial judges and two appellate judges. Labarga denied the shrinking number had anything to do with lower expectations from the Legislature.

“We crunch the numbers based on the caseloads, and the judicial branch has been very efficient,” he said. “We’ve been doing a lot with very little budget.”

The third branch of government in Florida runs on seven-tenths of 1 percent of the state budget, and no new judges have been approved in seven years.

“We need help,” Labarga said. “Some circuits obviously have grown more than others. I would hope the Legislature this year accommodates our request.”

Labarga is optimistic lawmakers will be more receptive. The tone of key legislators has been more moderate of late. Also, as the economy improves and the foreclosure backlog shrinks, new resources may emerge.

Labarga expects the added responsibilities of chief justice will keep him in the office more. That’s saying something since he admits, “I practically live in this building. It’s a 24/7 job.”

He doesn’t want to cut back on researching and writing opinions, his favorite part of the job.

“Absolutely not,” Labarga insisted.

When it comes to getting credit on opinions, Labarga has been one of the less prominent authors. Five majority opinions bore his name in 2013 compared to 12 for R. Fred Lewis and 16 for Barbara Pariente. But like his colleagues, most of Labarga’s work is done anonymously.

Opinions on judicial procedure and death penalty cases are unsigned but comprise more than 70 percent of all opinions.

“Most of what I write on is death penalty cases,” Labarga said.

Cuban Origins

Labarga always wanted to be a lawyer.

“I guess it had a lot to do with what happened in Cuba. I do firmly believe that lawyers are the enforcers of democracy,” he said.

His father was a blue-collar worker who was happy to see Cuba freed from the dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. That elation soon turned to heartbreak once it was clear Fidel Castro would not deliver American-style democracy. Labarga’s father fled by air in 1961 but couldn’t bring his family.

Two years later at 11, Labarga, his two brothers and mother left Cuba for Mexico City.

“My grandfather had a friend in Mexico,” Labarga said. For six months, the Labargas were guests living near Chapultepec park where the brothers spent their days playing until their father arranged a trip to Florida.

When Labarga was in grade school, his father supported the family working in a Pahokee sugar mill. The family later moved to West Palm Beach.

Labarga earned his bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of Florida. In 1979, he returned to West Palm Beach as an assistant public defender. He was an assistant state attorney for five years before entering private practice at Cone, Wagner, Nugent, Roth, Romano & Ericksen. In 1992, he help found Roth, Duncan & Labarga.

Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Labarga to the Palm Beach circuit bench in 1996, where he presided over family, civil and criminal divisions. In 2008, Crist picked Labarga for a seat on the Fourth District Court of Appeal and extended the Supreme Court appointment the following month.