Supreme Court replacement: Barbara Lagoa rises to top of Trump's list as president seeks Florida campaign edge

Lagoa’s has been described as 'very pro-life, reliably pro-life’

Isaac Stanley-Becker,Aaron C. Davis
Wednesday 23 September 2020 12:49 BST
Donald Trump says he will announce nominee to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg 'very soon'

A broad cross-section of Florida Republicans, from supporters of Donald Trump to former top aides to Jeb Bush, lined up over the weekend behind Barbara Lagoa, propelling the federal judge and Miami-born daughter of Cuban exiles to the top of the shortlist of potential replacements for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The swift ascension of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals judge to serious consideration by members of Mr Trump's team, along with Amy Coney Barrett of the 7th Circuit and several others, reflects the blunt political calculations informing the White House's decision-making 45 days from an election that could turn on the outcome in Florida, which has never sent a justice to the nation's highest court. 

The president, facing a tight race in the state, whose electoral college votes are seen as critical for his path to reelection, is intensifying his courtship of Hispanics, especially the heavily Republican Cuban American community in South Florida.

Within 48 hours of Ginsburg's death, a push for Ms Lagoa has taken shape in the battleground state, drawing on years of goodwill she and her husband have built in Florida's legal and political circles, and their extensive ties with the Federalist Society, the influential conservative legal group.

Advocates for Ms Lagoa sent text messages and placed calls over the weekend to officials in the White House and the Justice Department, as well as prominent attorneys who have sway with Mr Trump's top aides, according to several people with knowledge of the discussions.

"She is a Cuban woman from Miami and Florida is the most important state in the election," said Jesse Panuccio, former acting associate attorney general in Mr Trump's Justice Department and a member of the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, which vetted her before governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, named her to the state's top court in January 2019.

An effort to install a second Latina on the high court would immediately raise the stakes of a nomination fight that quickly became a clash over principles of fairness and democratic legitimacy. Republicans are seeking to move ahead with a selection process in opposition to the standard they set in 2016, when they blocked Barack Obama from filling a seat in an election year. Choosing Ms Lagoa would represent a bid to refocus attention on a potential nominee's personal story and political appeal rather than the legitimacy of the process.

Nonetheless, Lagoa's 14-year tenure as a state and federal judge presents Democrats with opportunities to scrutinise her record.

Particularly contentious could be her record on voting rights and executive power. Ms Lagoa concurred this month in a federal appeals court ruling that is expected to keep many of the 85,000 felons who have registered to vote in Florida from casting ballots.

Ms Lagoa's role in the case has prompted backlash from Senate Democrats, who sent her a letter this summer alleging that her failure to recuse herself "appears to violate the Code of Conduct for United States Judges" given her role last year in an advisory opinion handed down on the issue by the Florida Supreme Court.

On Florida's high court, and before that, on a state appeals court, she repeatedly sided with businesses, helping to turn back a higher minimum wage in Miami, limiting recourse for homeowners facing foreclosure, and reversing or rejecting cases of employees who sued Caterpillar and Uber. Ms Lagoa also wrote a controversial decision finding that Mr DeSantis had broad executive authority to suspend a county sheriff over his handling of the 2018 shooting in Parkland.

And while the judge has not expounded at length on abortion and its legal limits - saying in written answers submitted to the Senate last year that she would "faithfully apply … precedents" when it came to Roe v Wade - one of her main advocates, representative Matt Gaetz, said she is "very pro-life, reliably pro-life".

"The hardcore Catholics usually stick with us," the congressman added. "Her faith guides her perspective on life."

Daniel Goldberg, legal director of the liberal Alliance for Justice, was critical of Ms Lagoa's record, saying she is a judge "who has showed contempt for our democracy". Mr Goldberg said he has "no doubt that she will meet Donald Trump's litmus test" for a Supreme Court nominee and support his pledge to overturn Roe and the Affordable Care Act.

Mr DeSantis, a staunch Trump ally, was so taken with Ms Lagoa when he met her in August 2018 that he considered putting her on his ticket as the candidate for lieutenant governor, said Mr Gaetz, a co-chair of the governor's transition team.

Mr DeSantis is now backing efforts to lobby the White House on Ms Lagoa's behalf, according to people in Washington and Tallahassee familiar with the pitch, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount private conversations.

She is quiet and collegial, with shrewd political instincts, according to interviews with former colleagues, longtime friends and legal academics who have followed the arc of her career.

Senate confirmation votes for US Supreme Court Justices since 1986, by party (The Independent/Statista)

Especially central for her, these observers said, was her experience as a member of the pro-bono legal team representing the Miami relatives of Elián González, the Cuban boy whose mother drowned while trying to escape with him to the United States and whose subsequent custody case became an international cause celebre. He was eventually returned to his Cuban father after a surprise raid in which federal agents removed him from a Miami home in April 2000.

"Elián was a trophy in a battle between the Cuban government and the relentless anti-Castro politics of the Miami Cuban community, of which Lagoa became a prominent member," said David Abraham, an emeritus professor at the University of Miami law school. "His case became a venue for group solidarity and the maintenance and construction of political power."

Others drew different lessons from the legal battle. Mr Bush's former general counsel Raquel Rodriguez, who helped oversee the vetting process that put Ms Lagoa on the Miami-based 3rd District Court of Appeal, said the episode made evident Ms Lagoa's determination.

"She must have worked day and night on that," Ms Rodriguez said. "She truly believed that this little boy deserved to grow up in freedom, which is what his mother wanted for him. It weighs on her to this day."

Mr Bush, while not responding to a question about whether the Senate should confirm a nominee so close to a presidential election, described Ms Lagoa in an email as an "intelligent, consistent, hardworking judge".

While Ms Barrett has a more prominent national profile and a portfolio of writing and speeches as a law professor that endears her to the conservative legal community, Ms Lagoa has a longer history as a judge, as well as experience as a federal prosecutor, her allies said. They were at pains in particular to present her as an originalist who would adhere to the letter of the Constitution in the mould of Antonin Scalia, the late justice for whom Ms Barrett clerked.

Ms Lagoa has helped render judgments in about 12,000 cases and written more than 400 opinions, Mr Panuccio estimated.

Lagoa's husband, Paul Huck Jr, is the "godfather of the Federalist Society in Miami," said José Félix Díaz, a former state legislator and consultant with Ballard Partners, the powerful lobbying firm closely associated with Mr Trump.

Mr Huck is an attorney with Jones Day, the firm that has represented Mr Trump's campaign. His father, Paul C Huck, is a judge on the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida, a position to which he was nominated by Bill Clinton in 2000. "I don't think they get overly partisan at the kitchen table," Mr Díaz added.

Ms Lagoa was born in Miami and grew up in Hialeah. She graduated from Florida International University in 1989 and received her law degree from Columbia University in 1992, according to her court biographies.

After her appointment by then-governor Bush in 2006, she served for 13 years on the Miami-area appeals court. Ms Lagoa was among Mr DeSantis' first nominees to the Florida Supreme Court. Already the first female chief judge on the Florida appeals court, Ms Lagoa became the first Cuban American on Florida's high court.

But her stop in Tallahassee became one of the shortest in 50 years. After fewer than nine months, she was nominated by Mr Trump to sit on the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The Senate confirmed her nomination by an 80-to-15 vote.

Permeating Democratic questions for Ms Lagoa were her connections to the Federalist Society and whether she knowingly benefited from the influential nonprofit's increasing use of expensive media campaigns to promote conservative judges.

In written answers, she recalled how the group's powerful executive vice president, Leonard Leo, had traveled to Orlando to interview finalists for the federal bench. She said she first met Leo "in passing" after a Federalist Society luncheon in 2015 and did not recall speaking with him again until the interview in 2019.

She also acknowledged having attended an annual Federalist Society conference and celebration hosted for judges at Disney World. She said she was not aware of meeting any fundraisers at the event in 2019 who may have been supporting her nomination.

"I spent most of my time at the dessert reception speaking with lawyers and other judges, as well as their children, about non-legal matters (for example, our children, our day on the rides at other theme parks at Walt Disney World)," she wrote.

The Washington Post

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