The Elian Gonzalez tragedy was a watershed moment that changed the lives of many children of Cuban exiles. For judge and possible SCOTUS nominee Barbara Lagoa, it shaped her legal career.
How Barbara Lagoa’s fight for Elian Gonzalez shaped her legal career
A bitter battle against the immigration policies of the U.S. government. Fear of undue influence from a communist regime. And a looming presidential election where Florida would be one of the most important states to decide the outcome.
That was the scene Barbara Lagoa, an up-and-coming lawyer at a well-established private law firm, landed in two decades agowhen she joined the 2000 fight to keep Elian Gonzalez in Miami as the Cuban government pushed for him to be returned to his father in Cuba.
The traumatic and emotional story behind the international standoff over Gonzalez — a 5-year-old boy found clinging to a tire a few miles offshore after his mother died trying to reach Florida — became a political flashpoint in a state that ultimately wound up deciding that year’s presidential election.
But for Lagoa, a judge on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals who is now among the topcandidates President Donald Trump is considering for the U.S. Supreme Court, the episode became an early cornerstone of her legal career — shaping her philosophy on the role of government and her sense of right and wrong.
While she was not in the spotlight like some of the other attorneys who worked on the case, Lagoa spent time with Gonzalez family members and played a key role in sharpening the legal attack on President Bill Clinton’s administration, which wanted to send the young boy back to Cuba.
“Her nickname in the group was Barbara ‘The Hammer’ Lagoa,” recalled Linda Osberg-Braun, an immigration attorney who worked on the case against deportation. “She hammered the legal points in her legal arguments.”
Lagoa, now 52,herself the child of Cuban exiles who fled from the island nation the year before she was born, was a lawyer at the firm of Greenberg Traurig when she became part of the legal team that worked pro bono on the federal lawsuit.
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