MIAMI — Barbara Lagoa, a Cuban American federal appellate judge, is on President Donald Trump’s shortlist for the Supreme Court to replace liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Friday.
The conservative jurist was the first Latina to serve on Florida’s Supreme Court. If she is chosen by Trump later this week and confirmed by the Senate, Lagoa, 52, would become the second Latina to serve on the nation's highest court. It would give the court a 6-3 conservative majority. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, is the first Latina, selected by former President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2009.
Justin Sayfie, a Republican lobbyist and lawyer who divides his time between South Florida and Washington, has known Lagoa for 20 years. “I think the world of her," he said. "I have great admiration for her as a judge and personally. She’s an incredible daughter for her parents, great wife for her husband and amazing mother for her children."
He called her a “constitutionalist or textualist” who believes in “judicial restraint.”
He and Lagoa met through mutual friends and often attended the same professional legal events. Lagoa has twin daughters and Sayfie has twin sons, so they often spoke about the challenges and rewards of raising them.
Sayfie thinks Lagoa has distinguished herself on the bench. She was appointed to judicial positions by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Trump.
“One of the things she brings to her job as a judge is her humility," he said. "Even though she’s been on the bench for 17 years, she’s the same person she was before she wore a black robe.”
Florida is the largest battleground state where Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are in a dead heat. Many experts agree Trump needs Florida to win re-election Nov. 3. Choosing a Latina judge from the Sunshine State can give him a boost, especially among Hispanic voters.
Ruth Jaen-Rivas, a teacher at a private preschool attended by Lagoa’s three children in Coral Gables, a Miami suburb, said she is excited about a potential nomination.
“I was watching television when they mentioned her name. I got so excited,” Jaen-Rivas said.
“Everyone in the school remembers ‘the Huck girls,’” she said, referring to Lagoa's husband's last name to identify her daughters.
“She was an only child, so her parents have to be so thrilled,” she added about Lagoa.
Jaen-Rivas thinks a nomination could energize Latino support for Trump in Florida, especially among Cuban Americans.
Lagoa has not served long as a federal judge. She joined the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December after being appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Senate in a bipartisan 80-15 vote. The 11th Circuit is one of the regional appeals courts that are one step below the Supreme Court.
Lagoa took part in a controversial ruling that reversed a judge’s decision to strike down a Florida law that requires people with serious criminal convictions to pay all fines, restitution and legal fees before regaining the right to vote. Those who oppose the law, which is backed by Republicans, equate it to poll taxes imposed in the past to keep Black people from voting.
Lagoa played a role in a major international custody battle 20 years ago between the United States and Cuba over a 5-year-old boy named Elián González, who was rescued from the ocean after his mother drowned while fleeing Cuba with him. Lagoa provided free legal services to Elián’s relatives in Miami who sought to keep him here. Ultimately, Elián was returned to his father in Cuba.
The liberal activist group Alliance for Justice has said Lagoa’s previous court decisions “raise concerns that she will side with the wealthy and powerful at the expense of everyday Americans as a federal judge.”
The group cited a 2019 ruling in which Lagoa sided with businesses challenging Miami Beach’s minimum wage, as well as a decision she joined that made it harder for homeowners to fight foreclosure proceedings.
Lagoa’s parents fled Cuba after Fidel Castro’s 1959 communist revolution. They settled in Hialeah, a blue-collar Cuban American enclave outside Miami, where Lagoa grew up.
Lagoa has said her parents’ flight from Castro’s Cuba shaped her views and career.
“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,” Lagoa said at an event last year. “Unlike the country my parents fled, we are a nation of laws, not of men.”
She graduated from Florida International University and earned a law degree from Columbia University, the same Ivy League school Ginsburg attended.
Lagoa’s husband, Paul Huck Jr., is a lawyer in Miami. They have three daughters. Lagoa’s father-in-law, Paul Huck Sr., is a semi-retired federal judge in Miami appointed by President Bill Clinton.