The Florida Supreme Court swore in its first Cuban-American chief justice in a packed courtroom Monday afternoon.
Jorge Labarga was elected as the 56th chief justice in January and has now begun his two-year term. Those on hand for the standing-room-only event included Florida House speaker Will Weatherford, Senate president Don Gaetz, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera and six former Supreme Court justices.
"As a young child, I watched my parents dream of an American-style democracy while their home country turned into a Marxist nightmare," Labarga said. "It is absolutely imperative that we continue to strive to be a country and state of inclusion and not exclusion."
Labarga was born in Cuba in 1952 and moved to Pahokee, Florida, as an 11-year-old. He looked at his fellow justices Monday, including two women, two African-Americans and himself, and said, "This the way our judicial system should look.
Labarga succeeds Chief Justice Ricky Polston, who will remain on the bench. The chief justice is elected by the members of the court, and the office is rotated every two years. Labarga's election followed a tradition of electing the next senior justice who hasn't yet held the position. His two daughters and several other supporters were in attendance. Labarga's wife Zulma held the Bible as he was sworn in by Polston.
Labarga used a portion of his remarks to push for increased legal representation for those unable to afford it.
"For a democracy to work, the concept of justice must be available ... to all citizens," Labarga said.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Labarga to the high court in 2009.
Labarga is from West Palm Beach. He served as a trial court judge and then briefly as an appeals judge before he was appointed to the state Supreme Court.
"Chief Justice Labarga is the first Cuban-American to ascend to chief justice, but he is also the first justice of Hispanic descent to ascend to chief justice," former Supreme Court justice Raoul Cantero said. "This is a very proud moment for all Hispanics."