President Donald Trump said he plans to select a woman to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a feminist icon who helped lead the Supreme Court’s liberal wing for years. Among the people on his short list is Barbara Lagoa, a 52-year-old conservative judge he appointed to the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals last December.
After Ginsburg died Friday, the President initially expressed interest in Lagoa, a Cuban American judge he had spoken to only once before. Trump’s allies advocated for the Miami-born judge, arguing her hometown could give them a campaign edge in Florida, a crucial swing state where Lagoa carved out a history-making career as a jurist.
“She’s excellent. She’s Hispanic. She’s a terrific woman from everything I know,” Trump told Fox News on Monday. “I don’t know her. Florida. We love Florida.”
Prior to Trump’s appointment of Lagoa last year, she served as the first Hispanic woman and the first Cuban American woman on the Supreme Court of Florida, having been appointed to it in January 2019 by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
At the time of her appointment to the state’s high court, Lagoa spoke to the personal significance of the moment as the governor, her family and her parents, who are Cuban exiles, stood nearby.
“Over 50 years ago, my parents, like so many others, came to this country from Cuba to start rebuilding their lives in a land that offered them opportunity, but more importantly, freedom,” she said. “I know that the farthest thing from their minds when they arrived here with only the clothes on their back and their education was that their only child would be here standing today with the governor of Florida at an event like this today, especially since my father had to give up his dream of becoming a lawyer.”
A source close to Lagoa said she would appeal to the President because her Cuban heritage would bring a different kind of diversity to the Supreme Court, and because although she attended an Ivy League law school she has stayed true to her roots and does not represent the elitism that exists in some circles along the East Coast.
Though Lagoa would not be the first Latina to have a spot on the bench – that distinction was claimed by Sonia Sotomayor when then-President Barack Obama appointed her in 2009 – it’s clear that her family’s heritage would play a key role in her decision making.
During her Senate confirmation process last year for the 11th Circuit, Lagoa tied her commitment to originalism – the legal philosophy championed by the late Justice Antonin Scalia – to Cuban politics.
“If we are not bound by what the Constitution means and it is ever changing, then we are no different than the country that my parents fled from, which is Cuba. Because Cuba has a constitution and a bill of rights and it means nothing,” Lagoa said during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Because there is no one to hold it and to say this is what the definition of this constitution means if it is always ever changing.”
She added: “The principles that were articulated in the (US) Constitution at the time of ratification have a meaning – that meaning is constant. What changes is the application of that meaning to new things.”
But Lagoa’s originalism and judicial thinking could prove to be problematic for her, as White House staff working on Trump’s search discussed this weekend her recent vote with the majority in a ruling over felons’ rights when the 11th Circuit upheld a requirement for fines to be paid before felons regain the right to vote.
“In the end, as our judicial oath acknowledges, we will answer for our work to the Judge who sits outside of human history,” said part of the opinion from Circuit Chief Judge William Pryor that Lagoa joined.
The case questioned whether requiring felons to pay court fees and other costs associated with their sentences in full imposed an unconstitutional tax and violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
Lagoa sided with the majority, 6-4, in the court’s major decision this month, ruling that the requirement for felons to pay all fees before voting was within the law. She explained her vote as in line with how she sees the limits of a judge’s role.
“Our role in the constitutional system is simply to review that step for compliance with the Constitution, not to lengthen its stride. To proceed otherwise would violate the principles of federalism and separation of powers – the two structural guarantors of individual rights and liberty in our Constitution. … It falls to the citizens of the State of Florida and their elected state legislators, not to federal judges, to make any additional changes to it,” Lagoa wrote.
The outcome in the Florida case may be one of the most impactful in a battleground state this election, affecting thousands of people, attorneys in the case have said. Before a recent decision in the case, the Supreme Court had declined to step in before the full circuit court ruled. The Supreme Court split 6-3, with Ginsburg in the minority.
Abortion and Roe v. Wade
The bulk of Lagoa’s opinions have been in state court, so she has not weighed in on some weighty constitutional issues like Roe v. Wade while a federal judge.
During her Senate confirmation process last year, however, Lagoa was asked about the landmark case that legalized abortion in the US and has since served as a key litmus test for Democrats and some Republicans.
In response to written questions from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, Lagoa said the 1973 decision “is binding precedent of the Supreme Court and I would faithfully follow it,” noting that for “lower court judges, all Supreme Court precedent, including Roe v. Wade … is settled law.”
Prior to being appointed by DeSantis to the Florida Supreme Court, Lagoa served for more than a decade on the 3rd District Court of Appeal, a position she was appointed to in 2006 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
She made history with that appointment as well, becoming the first Hispanic woman and the first Cuban American woman to serve on the panel.
Lagoa has also practiced law in both the civil and criminal arenas, according to her official biography, which noted she also served for some time as an assistant US attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
As a private lawyer in 2000, Lagoa represented the American family of Elián Gonzalez, the Cuban boy whose family had been rescued in the open waters of the Atlantic, as they fought a bitter battle to obtain asylum for him. The high-profile case rocked Florida, triggering tensions between Cuba and the US.
She also represented rock star Sammy Hagar in a breach of contract suit.
Lagoa attended Florida International University before going on to get her law degree from Columbia University in 1992, where she helped edit the school’s prestigious law review, according to her biography. She is married to Paul Huck, who is also an attorney, and the two have three daughters.