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Labarga becomes first Cuban-American chief justice

In a standing-room-only Supreme Court chamber Monday, Jorge Labarga took the oath of office as Florida's first Cuban-American chief justice.

Labarga, 61, succeeds Ricky Polston. For the next two years, Labarga will be the chief administrative officer of Florida's courts, first among equals on the state's seven-member high court and will take the lead in all oral arguments.

One of his first objectives is to hold a statewide summit on access to the courts to include representatives from the governor's office, state Legislature and the business community.

"It is a societal problem that must be resolved by society," Labarga said in his first speech as chief justice.

Labarga was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. in 1963 when he was 11 years old, and was raised in sugar cane country, Pahokee, where he learned to speak English. He received both his bachelor's and law degrees at the University of Florida and is a proud "double Gator."

Gov. Rick Scott did not attend the 75-minute afternoon ceremony. Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, also a Cuban-American, spoke of the pride all Cubans feel about Labarga's achievement. Labarga was appointed to the Supreme Court by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2009.

Senate President Don Gaetz, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater also spoke at the ceremony, and Justice Barbara Pariente spoke of Labarga's love of telling stories, sometimes more than once, like the time Labarga said he was mistaken for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

"It has been a long, long journey from the sugar cane fields of Pahokee to the halls of the Supreme Court," Pariente said.

Former justice Raoul Cantero, a friend of Labarga's, presented the new chief justice with a Cuban coffee machine and two bags of Cuban coffee. "This machine works wonders for productivity," Cantero said.

"Can I keep that?" Labarga said. (Yes, he can, but under the ethics laws he must report it as a gift).