Florida's Chief Justice talks transparency

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla.(WJHG) - Jorge Labarga may sit in the highest judicial seat in the state but said he worked hard to get there.

"As we were growing up as teens," said Labarga, "my father sat down with us and told us I can't leave you any money when I'm gone but I can leave you with an education."

Labarga was born in Cuba. "My father was heavily involved in the Castro revolution hoping to topple Bautista who was a dictator. Once Fidel Castro started singing that Marxist tune my father and his friends felt they had to leave the country," Labarga told Newschannel 7.

Labarga was 11 when he came to America, where he and his brothers got some advice from their Father.

"He said American people by nature are fair minded people who will give you every opportunity to succeed if you are willing to work hard and be honest." The now chief justice said that's a message he wants all Floridians to hear.

Labarga started his judicial career in West Palm Beach. "I Started as a circuit judge, trial judge in Palm Beach County," said Labarga. "I presided in the year 2000 over Bush v Gore. That was the longest week of my life."

He was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2009 and became chief justice in 2014 where he has made history.

Labarga is the first Cuban-American to head the judicial branch of government and the first Chief Justice in 150 years to serve two consecutive terms. The last chief justice to serve consecutive terms occurred right after the Civil War during reconstruction.

Labarga's goals while serving include transparency in the state's legal system and courthouse safety.

"In today's climate anything can happen anywhere," said Labarga. "I just want to make sure that everyone in these buildings is safe." He's established a committee of judges to be part of a courthouse security workgroup.

"They're going to consult experts and perhaps we need to go into these courthouses and find all the weak spots," said Larbarga. He even cited an incident that happen in Gulf County in 1987 where a circuit judge and two others were killed over a divorce case.

He said all these years later there are still some smaller rural courthouses that aren't very secure. Labarga said, "I want to make sure that doesn't happen anywhere else and that people feel safe when they come in these buildings."

Labarga also believes judges need to be more active in communicating to the public what they do. "Media, such as yourself, you love to hear and report on first degree murder cases," said Labarga. "They're interesting, they're emotional and stressful. Those cases are typically the exception. The rest, you know who they are? Our daughters our sons our nephews, our grandchildren, ourselves who just had a bad night or just made a mistake. Judges are constantly working out ways to put these folks back on track again."

In a recent article Larbarga wrote "necessity is causing the court system to reconsider its prior disdain for media such as twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube."

He told Newschannel 7 he now believes social media is one of the best ways to keep people informed. "That is something we're working on because it's there and that's how people find out the news today," said Labarga.

He's encouraging judges to use social media to let the public know about all the good they do. "They hear all about the senators and representatives and the Governor and their fights over everything, they don't ever hear about us. I think they need to hear about the judicial branch and all that we do."

Justice Labarga also said judges need to start using language the average person can understand. He believes that will help people realize how many hours go into making difficult decisions.