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Consideration Of Lagoa For U.S. Supreme Court Draws Scrutiny, Praise

Barbara Lagoa, Governor Ron DeSantis' pick for the Florida Supreme Court, gestures as she speaks after being introduced, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Barbara Lagoa, Governor Ron DeSantis' pick for the Florida Supreme Court, gestures as she speaks after being introduced, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Friends and public officials alike say the daughter of Cuban exiles would be a worthy selection.

President Trump on Saturday will announce his nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last week. Federal appeals court judge Barbara Lagoa of Hialeah remains in the running. Steve Bousquet reports on Lagoa’s rapid rise to prominence in Florida and beyond.

The daughter of Cuban exiles, Catholic, a federal appeals court judge, mother of three daughters, and married to Miami attorney Paul Huck, whose father, Paul Huck Senior, is a federal judge. Barbara Lagoa is now under consideration for a seat on the highest court in the land.

It has been a rapid rise for the 52-year-old lawyer who grew up in Hialeah, went to Hialeah High, Florida International University, and then to Columbia for law school. Lagoa first joined the bench as an appellate judge in Miami in 2006 as a late-term appointee of former Governor Jeb Bush. Governor Ron DeSantis elevated her to the Supreme Court in May of last year. At her robing ceremony at the high court in Tallahassee, Lagoa spoke of how her parents fled Fidel Castro’s repressive regime in Cuba and how it shaped her own outlook.

“Because of the shared experiences of our parents and grandparents, many of us in this room have a special appreciation for the rule of law,” Lagoa said. “Because we understand what it means when individual liberties, respect for private property, and basic human rights are abandoned by a government … I am particularly mindful of my obligations under our constitutional system of separated powers, and like the country my parents fled, we are a nation of laws, and not of men.”

A long-time friend recalled Lagoa growing up in blue-collar Hialeah. Roland Sanchez Medina is a former president of the Cuban American Bar Association.

“It seems like a lifetime ago we were young law clerks in the summer of 1990,” Sanchez Medina said. “Back then, obviously, she was Barbara, a young lady from Hialeah, Florida, and now I know that it’s EAST Hialeah, so we know exactly where in Hialeah she came from.”

As a young lawyer at the Greenberg Traurig firm, Lagoa was part of the legal team that tried to prevent young Elian Gonzalez from being returned to Cuba. The highly emotional custody dispute captivated the country in 2000.

During the one brief year Lagoa spent on the Florida Supreme Court, she wrote the decision upholding DeSantis’ suspension of former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel for neglect of duty. After being elevated to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals by President Trump early this year, she was a key vote to uphold the requirement that Florida felons must pay all fines, fees and other costs before they can vote.

DeSantis said Lagoa would be a reliably conservative justice and that she’s very deserving.

“I think it would be a big deal -- a little girl from Hialeah grows up as the daughter of exiles, and growing up they didn’t necessarily have anything when they came here and she worked. I remember when she went to Columbia for law school it was like a world away. She was a great student, a prosecutor, Elian Gonzalez, she’s been willing to stand on principle and has been a great judge.”

Democrats dislike Lagoa because of her decision in the felons voting case. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat on Florida’s Cabinet, addressed the issue with reporters in Tallahassee.

“I can only tell you that from my perspective talking to a lot of individuals they are very disappointed with the legislature and how they have implemented the amendment and of course and the governor continues to appeal it all the way up. So, there’s a huge amount of disappointment and frustration. Our clemency process is broken, and we wouldn’t have had to have Amendment 4 if in fact clemency was actually working for the people as it was supposed to do.”

Whoever is chosen as Ginsburg’s replacement – if she is confirmed by the U.S. Senate before the November election – could end up deciding whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden is president for the next four years. It may sound far-fetched, but as everyone in Tallahassee surely remembers, it has happened before.
Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.org.

Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.