New Florida Governor Makes First Pick for Top Court

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) – Newly inaugurated Republican Governor Ron DeSantis appointed his first justice to the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday, one of three picks that will shift the ideological balance of the court to the right.

Barbara Lagoa, the chief judge of the Third District Court of Appeal and member of the conservative Federalist Society, becomes the 87th justice of the state’s highest court.  

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, waves during an inauguration ceremony with his wife Casey and son Mason on Jan. 8, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Lagoa, a Miami native, was the first Cuban-American woman to serve on the appellate court after her 2006 appointment by former Governor Jeb Bush. She will also be the first Hispanic woman to serve on the Florida Supreme Court.

“She clearly has the most judicial experience,” DeSantis said of Lagoa, adding she has presided over more than 11,000 cases and written 470 opinions.

DeSantis will make two more appointments to the state’s top court in the coming days after three justices – R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince – left due to mandatory retirement.

The three new justices will join Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson, who are considered part of the conservative wing of the court. Justice Jorge Labarga often acts as a swing vote.

The three retiring justices – Pariente, Lewis and Quince – were considered more liberal. They frequently struck down redistricting provisions and abortion restrictions pushed by former Governor Rick Scott and Republican-controlled Legislature.

DeSantis and his Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial election, Andrew Gillum, often talked about the importance of who picked the next three justices. In his inauguration speech Tuesday, DeSantis said the role of the judiciary must be limited.

“To my fellow Floridians, I say to you: judicial activism ends, right here and right now,” he said. “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.”

DeSantis made his judicial announcement Wednesday morning at Miami’s Freedom Tower – a museum and office building that used to process Cubans fleeing repression in their country. Lagoa, the only child of Cuban exiles, spoke about the hardships faced by her parents and her upbringing in South Florida.

“I know the farthest thing from their minds when they arrived here, with the clothes on their back and their education, was that their only child would be here standing today, with the governor of Florida at an event like this today,” she said, “Especially since my father had to give up his dream of becoming a lawyer.”

Her experience shaped her views, she said.

“The Florida Supreme Court is tasked with the protection of the people’s liberties under law,” Lagoa said. “In that regard, I’m 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.”

Lagoa fills a seat that must go to a nominee from South Florida. The other two justices can come from anywhere in the state.

In November, the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission submitted 11 names, mostly circuit court and appellate court judges, to replace the retiring justices.

The nine-member nominating commission, all appointed by Scott, sifted through 58 applications over the last two months to whittle down the list to 11 people.  

All of the judges on the list were appointed by Republican governors and six of them by Scott himself. Nine of the nominees are members of the Federalist Society, according to their applications, including Lagoa.

Some groups such as the NAACP criticized the list as lacking in diversity. There were no African-Americans on the list, which means for the first time in 36 years, the Florida Supreme Court will not have a black justice.

The appointment process for new justices was mired in controversy last year when Scott declared he would choose the new justices before leaving office. Scott’s intentions provoked a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters and liberal group Common Cause. In October, the Supreme Court ruled the incoming governor has “sole authority” to appoint the justices.

The groups wanted the top state court to invalidate the nominating process, but the justices declined.

This year, the Florida Supreme Court is set to rule on cases involving the controversial “stand your ground” law, gun rights and Miami Beach’s introduction of a citywide minimum wage.

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