Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga’s keynote address to Hillsborough County Bar Association members was one of the highlights at the 18th Annual Bench Bar Conference, Membership Luncheon, and Judicial Reception held on October 30 at the Hilton Tampa Downtown.
Installed this past June as Florida’s first Cuban-American chief justice, Labarga, in his remarks, recalled celebrating the Cuban Revolution in 1959 as a young boy in Cuba by riding around town in his father’s Chevy Bel Air and honking the horn. In a sad twist, however, Labarga said his father fled Cuba in 1961 in fear for his life because he was considered a threat to the new Marxist government under Fidel Castro.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and a detour for a time in Mexico City, Labarga and his other family members were reunited with his father in America in 1963 in the small South Florida sugar mill town of Pahokee. Labarga said the dramatic events he witnessed as a young boy helped him develop a “sense of democratic ideals and a respect for the rule of law.”
“I knew at age 11 that I wanted to be a lawyer,” said Labarga, who got his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida.
Appointed to the Supreme Court in 2009 by then Gov. Charile Crist, Labarga reminded the more than 500 people in attendance about the crucial role lawyers have in safeguarding democracy. “It is important that we not lose sight of the significant, if not vital, role the American lawyer has played, and must continue to play, in advancing our democratic ideals and in the furtherance of the preservation of the rule of law,” Justice Labarga said.
“A constitution, no matter how well written it is, and the protections it provides or promises, at the end of the day, is just words on paper,” he said. “It is up to 'we the people' of this country to make it work.”
Concluding his remarks, Labarga said that during his term as chief justice he intends to focus on increasing access to justice for all Floridians, including working-class citizens who can’t afford to hire a lawyer and who don’t qualify for legal aid.
The theme for this year’s Bench Bar Conference was “The Future Is Now: Law Meets Technology.” Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Judges Caroline J. Tesche and Samantha L. Ward were the conference co-chairs.
Both judges worked for months with other dedicated Bench Bar Committee members, HCBA CLE Director Monique Lawson, and other HCBA staff members planning the conference.
“This year’s Bench Bar Conference proved to be truly exceptional,” Tesche said. “We owe special thanks to all the stellar presenters and panelists who put so much effort into making their sessions both substantive and timely.”
There were a record number of attendees at the various CLE breakout and plenary sessions held throughout the day. The afternoon plenary session featured noted Florida State University Law Professor Charles Ehrhardt, who spoke on evolving evidentiary issues.
In addition, after the afternoon plenary session, Ben Hill III and current HCBA President Ben Hill IV introduced a special video tribute to the group of local judges who retired in 2014.
Later in the day, more than 400 HCBA members enjoyed the camaraderie provided at the annual Judicial Reception at the Hilton.
“I think the record number of attendees shows the commitment our local legal community has to enhancing collaboration and professionalism between the Bench and Bar,” Ward said.
Special thanks and gratitude need to go out to the many generous sponsors that helped make this year’s conference possible, especially the Diamond Sponsor, Steve Yerrid and The Yerrid Law Firm.
Planning is already underway for another great conference next fall.
See you around the Chet.