By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — In one of his first acts after taking office, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday made a historic appointment to the Florida Supreme Court, naming appellate Judge Barbara Lagoa as the high court’s first Cuban-American female justice.
DeSantis’ selection of Lagoa, the daughter of Cuban émigrés, was the first of three Supreme Court appointments the new governor will make, following the mandatory retirement of three justices who comprised what had been the court’s more liberal-leaning bloc.
Lagoa’s addition will cement a conservative majority that will include Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Alan Lawson and Ricky Polston, all of whom Lagoa cited as references in her application for the post. It also will keep DeSantis’ pledge to purge the Supreme Court of “activist” jurists.
DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate who served as a judge advocate in the Navy and who was sworn into office on Tuesday, hailed Lagoa as “the essence of what a judge should be.”
Lagoa, 51, grew up in Miami and attended New York’s Columbia Law School, where she edited the prestigious law review. A onetime federal prosecutor in Florida’s Southern District, Lagoa had experience in criminal and civil litigation before former Gov. Jeb Bush appointed her to the 3rd District Court of Appeal in 2006, where she has served for more than 12 years.
Recently, Lagoa has been chief judge of the appellate court, which hears cases from Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.
In addition to her legal bona fides, Lagoa has a “great personal history,” DeSantis said, pointing to the location of Wednesday’s announcement, the Freedom Tower in Miami, as symbolic of his choice.
“I thought it was fitting, given that her parents came to Florida as Cuban exiles,” DeSantis, 40, said. “She understands the rule of law, how important that is to a society.”
Because of Lagoa’s family’s history, “she understands that, in Cuba, the rule of law doesn’t mean anything,” DeSantis said.
“The Cuban people do not know what laws apply to them or whether they will receive a fair trial after arbitrarily being accused of political crimes,” he said.
In her remarks, Lagoa, accompanied by her parents, husband and three daughters, left little doubt that she will fulfill DeSantis’ expectations.
The Florida Supreme Court is “tasked with the protections of the people’s liberties under law,” Lagoa said.
“And in that regard, I am particularly mindful of the fact that, under our constitutional system, it is for the Legislature and not the courts to make the law. It is the role of judges to apply, not to alter, the work of the people’s representatives. And it is the role of judges to interpret our Constitution and statutes as they are written,” she said.
Lagoa contrasted the experiences of people in her parents’ homeland with those of people in their adopted country and indicated that helped shape her legal views.
“In the country my parents fled, the whim of a single individual could mean the difference between food or hunger, liberty or prison, life or death. In our great country and our great state, we are governed by the rule of law, the consistent and equal application of the law to all litigations regardless of a judge’s personal preferences,” she said. “Unlike the country my parents fled, we are a nation of laws, not of men.”
DeSantis’ replacements for the three justices who were required to retire this week — R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince — will reshape a court that for years has been a thorn in the side to the Republican-dominated Legislature and former Gov. Rick Scott.
Over the past decade, the court overturned a number of policies important to GOP leaders, wrangled with lawmakers over congressional and Senate maps and, following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, ordered the Legislature to require unanimous jury recommendations for the death penalty to be imposed.
During his inaugural speech Tuesday, DeSantis blasted the court for expanding its powers “beyond constitutional bounds” and substituting “legislative will for dispassionate legal judgment.”
“To my fellow Floridians, I say to you: judicial activism ends, right here and right now,” DeSantis said during the speech. “I will only appoint judges who understand the proper role of the courts is to apply the law and Constitution as written, not to legislate from the bench. The Constitution, not the judiciary, is supreme.”
Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who played a major role in drafting legislative districts rejected by the Supreme Court, echoed DeSantis’ critique of the court while praising the governor’s choice.
“I share the governor’s concern that in recent years the power of the judicial branch has extended beyond its limited constitutional responsibility, in many cases eroding the authority of the legislative branch. I believe democracy is at its best when each branch of government exercises both authority and restraint at the appropriate time. That concept was certainly at the heart of … many of the comments we heard from the governor yesterday, and echoed again this morning with the appointment of Justice Lagoa,” Galvano said in a statement Wednesday.
Lagoa’s selection also drew praise from the business-backed Florida Justice Reform Institute, which, in a statement, called DeSantis’ appointment “the first step towards fulfilling his promise to appoint judges who will interpret the law and not legislate from the bench.”
Speaking at the Freedom Tower, Lagoa recounted her life as an only child growing up in Hialeah, where she “rode my bike” and “roller-skated down the streets and the sidewalks … under the watchful eye of my grandmother while my parents worked long hours.”
“Mami and papi, your hard work, your belief in the value of education, your love for what this country represents, your unparalleled work ethic, have made me what I am today,” Lagoa said.
DeSantis’ office said Lagoa will be the first Hispanic woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Former Justice Rosemary Barkett was born in Mexico, but because her parents were of Syrian descent, she has credited former justice Raoul Cantero with being Florida’s first justice of Hispanic descent. Cantero and current Justice Jorge Labarga are Cuban-Americans.
Lagoa will serve as a role model to young women, DeSantis, who was also accompanied by Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez on Wednesday.
The governor recalled that, when he announced Nuñez as his running-mate last year, he said “Jeanette’s life, what she’s done, was really an inspiration to a lot of young women.”
“I think the same of Barbara,” he said Wednesday. “I think people look at what she’s done, as a professional, as a wife, as a mother. This is really the way it should be done. I’m real excited about being able to put her on the court. “