Jorge Labarga Looks Ahead To Role As Chief Justice

, Daily Business Review

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Jorge Labarga
Jorge Labarga

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.

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