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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

The Judge at the 'Crossroads'

Profile: Jorge Labarga, who issued key ruling, hasn't shied away from the postelection drama.

November 23, 2000|SCOTT GOLD and BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga listened intently in his small Palm Beach County courtroom Wednesday as hard-charging Democratic and Republican lawyers sparred over what standards should be used to determine if a vote is valid.

Then Lawrence A. Gottfried, a George W. Bush supporter who has sued to block a manual recount of votes, rose to address the judge.

"You are probably at a crossroads of American history," Gottfried told the judge. "You may be making a decision that will be looked at . . . for centuries to come."

They were lofty words, but not much of a stretch.

Later that afternoon, Labarga, a former Republican fund-raiser now barred from partisan politics, dealt Vice President Al Gore a major setback when he declined to order the local canvassing board to use less-restrictive rules when reviewing "dimpled" ballots.

The Democrats argued that the board had improperly cast aside thousands of ballots that were indented, or dimpled, by voters who tried to properly punch out the chad to mark their choice.

Gore's camp has been sorely disappointed by the recounts so far in Palm Beach County, which had only yielded two extra votes for the vice president by Wednesday afternoon. They were even more dismayed by Labarga's ruling, which some viewed as dooming Gore's chances of overtaking Bush's lead in votes.

Labarga is just the latest Florida figure to enter the national spotlight as the election drama drags on.

Now 47, he was born in the small town of Melena del Sur near Havana but fled Cuba at age 7 with his mother and two brothers. His father had escaped two years earlier, hours before Castro's soldiers stormed through their home in search of his father.

The family moved to Pohokee, a hardscrabble town in western Palm Beach County, in 1969. While his father worked in a local sugar mill, Labarga graduated from Forest Hill High School and got a job as an investigator for the Palm Beach County public defender's office.

"I wanted to make sure that being a lawyer was what I wanted," he said.

Labarga earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida in Gainesville. He then worked as a public defender in West Palm Beach, then as a prosecutor for the Palm Beach County state attorney's office.

In 1992, Labarga became a partner in a local law firm, Roth, Duncan & Labarga, where he mostly handled civil and personal injury cases as well as court-appointed criminal cases.

An avid Republican, Labarga served as president of a Cuban American Republican Club and campaigned tirelessly during Jeb Bush's first, unsuccessful run for Florida governor in 1994. Along the way, he hosted parties and helped raise $100,000 for now-Gov. Bush, the younger brother of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush.

The late Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, appointed Labarga to the family court bench in 1996, despite concerns over his fund-raising activity. Labarga later changed his registration from Republican to independent and said this week that he could not recall if he gave any of his own money to Jeb Bush. As a judge, he is barred under state law from partisan political activity.

No one here suggests Labarga's politics have affected his decisions.

"I think he's fair-minded," said Lance Block, a West Palm Beach attorney and a leader of the local Democratic Party. "That doesn't mean he doesn't make wrong decisions. But I think he's nonpartisan and wants to do the right thing."

Assigned to civil court, Labarga won respect as a careful, detail-oriented jurist. That came in handy when six of the county's 10 civil court judges recused themselves last week from entering the postelection legal morass.

When it was his turn in the rotation, Labarga agreed to take the high-profile case--and jumped right in.

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