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Law & the Courts

Who is Barbara Lagoa?

Justice Barbara Lagoa (Florida Supreme Court)

Justice Barbara Lagoa is President Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit from Florida. Currently a justice on the Supreme Court of Florida, Lagoa is the only child of immigrant parents who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba in 1966, arriving in the United States via one of the “Freedom Flights”—a refugee program that transported Cubans to the U.S. between 1965 and 1973. Lagoa was born in Miami and raised in Hialeah, Florida—a predominantly Cuban community.  She has said that she “rode her bike and roller skated down the streets and the sidewalks of Hialeah under the watchful eye of [her] grandmother while [her] parents worked long hours.”

In the wake of having fled Cuba “with nothing but the clothes on their back and their education,” Lagoa’s parents emphasized the importance of their only daughter’s education, “sacrific[ing] to provide [Lagoa] with a Catholic school education and instilling in [her] the importance of education and hard work.” After attending Catholic elementary and secondary schools, Lagoa graduated cum laude with a B.A. degree from Florida International University in 1989 and earned a J.D. from Columbia Law School in 1992. During law school, she worked as associate editor of the Columbia Law Review.

Lagoa followed law school with 11 years in private practice, split among four firms in Miami: Morgan Lewis, Schulte Blum, Cohen Berke, and (for five years) Greenberg Traurig. She specialized in complex commercial litigation ranging from employment discrimination claims to securities litigation and class actions in both federal and state court. Her pro bono work included being part of the team that represented Elian Gonzalez’s family in Miami before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Between 2001 and 2003, she also served on Florida’s Federal Judicial Nominating Commission.

Justice Lagoa entered government service in 2003, when she became an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. There she served in the civil, major-crimes, and appellate sections, prosecuting violent crime, gang, and child pornography cases.  In 2006, she was appointed to Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal, a position to which she was twice retained by the electorate, in 2008 and 2014. Her colleagues on that court elected her chief judge in 2017. During her tenure, she presided over approximately 11,500 cases, and published over 500 written opinions.

In January of this year, Governor Ron DeSantis appointed her to the Supreme Court of Florida. Lagoa is the first Hispanic woman and the first Cuban-American woman appointed to the Florida supreme court, a distinction she also held when she was appointed to the Florida Third District Court of Appeal.  Following DeSantis’ announcement of her appointment, Lagoa spoke about the critical importance of the rule of law:

…I am particularly mindful of the fact that under our constitutional system, it is for the legislature and not for 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.

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 litigants regardless of a judge’s personal preferences.  Unlike the country my parents fled, we are a nation of laws, not of men.

Justice Lagoa has been active in numerous charitable and community organizations. She previously served on the Board of Directors of Kristi House, a non-profit organization that aids battered women and child victims of sexual abuse. She has also served on the board of the Florida International University Alumni Association. Justice Lagoa has also been an active member of the Federalist Society since the late 1990s.

Justice Lagoa has also been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including membership in the Phi Kappa Phi honor society and receiving the FIU Medallion of Honor, Florida International University’s highest honor. In 2010, she received the Outstanding Women of Color Award from the Black Law Student Association and the Caribbean Law Student Association at St. Thomas Law School. She is married and has three daughters.

Carrie Severino is chief counsel and policy director to the Judicial Crisis Network.

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