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Chief Justice Jorge Labarga Will Serve Second Successive Term, a First Since 1865

| February 5, 2016

chief justice jorge labarga

Labarga, a Cuban immigrant, became the first Hispanic to serve as chief justice when he moved into the role in 2014. (Florida Channel)

In a move away from longstanding tradition, the Florida Supreme Court has chosen Jorge Labarga to serve a second consecutive term as chief justice, the court announced Friday.

Labarga, 63, will become the first chief justice to serve a consecutive term since Charles H. DuPont, who was elected chief justice in 1860 and succeeded himself in 1865, the court said. Also, Labarga will be the first chief justice to serve more than a single term since Justice B.K. Roberts, who led the court during non-consecutive terms in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

The decision for Labarga to continue in the role stems, at least in part, from fellow Justice James E.C. Perry facing the state’s requirement that judges retire at age 70 or shortly thereafter. Ordinarily, the role of chief justice rotates to the court’s next-senior member every two years. Perry would have been in line to become chief justice July 1 but chose not to seek the position because he would have to retire a few months later, the court announcement said.

The court’s deliberations on such issues are done in private. All of the other justices on the seven-member court have served a term as chief justice.

Labarga, who immigrated to the United States at age 11 from Cuba, became the first Hispanic to serve as chief justice when he moved into the role in 2014, according to the court.

Chief justices preside over the Supreme Court and, more broadly, head the state’s judicial branch. In the broader role, Labarga has focused on taking steps to try to expand access to legal services for low-income people, creating a commission to work on the issue.

“It is a privilege to serve the people of Florida,” Labarga said in a statement issued Friday by the court. “My second term will continue the work started during the first — especially the efforts of the Access to Civil Justice Commission and implementation of both our new long-range plan and the first comprehensive statewide communications plan developed for the state courts system.”

During his tenure, the Supreme Court has also taken a tough stance on disciplining judges for ethical violations.

But it has often faced criticism from Republicans because of rulings on issues such as redistricting. Labarga is part of a five-member majority — also including justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Perry — that is widely viewed in Tallahassee as taking liberal positions in many cases.

The Supreme Court in 2012 approved rule changes that moved away from the seniority-based system of choosing chief justices. The changes allowed chief justices to serve consecutive terms, up to eight years, with the court’s majority saying, in part, that chief justices should be selected “based on managerial, administrative and leadership abilities, without regard solely to seniority.”

Labarga, a former Palm Beach County circuit judge, has served on the Supreme Court since 2009, after being appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist. He underwent surgery in September for kidney cancer but quickly returned to work.

–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

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