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The ball is in her court now

When new judge Debra Roberts went to law school she thought she could change the world. Here's her chance.

By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Jacquelyn Martin]
Judge Debra Roberts watches the public defender and her client in a New Port Richey courtroom on Thursday.
NEW PORT RICHEY -- Ninety-two defendants packed the courtroom. They faced misdemeanor charges: DUI, trespassing, possession of marijuana. It seemed routine stuff, to be handled in routine fashion, until the bailiff said:

"All rise."

County Judge Debra Roberts walked to the bench. She sat down and promptly began a new day in the legal history of Pasco County. It was her first day as Pasco's newest judge.

And it was Pasco's first day with a black judge.

Roberts was apprehensive. Being black, facing a room filled with mostly white defendants, had nothing to do with it. In her 16-year legal career leading up to this moment, Roberts never had practiced criminal law. Would the defendants in the courtroom that morning be able to tell?

"Wow," she said to herself.

"I was worried," she recalled later, "that I would make a mistake."

But Judge Roberts was up to the challenge. By noon, she had worked her way through a 34-page calendar. No surprise there. Raised in public housing and educated in segregated schools through 11th grade, Roberts is no stranger to adversity.

"I guess I'm a little different," she said. "I come from a segregated background. I was always in the minority.

"This isn't anything that's really new to me."

Roberts, 48, was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in November to fill a newly created county judgeship. The appointment fulfilled a dream for Roberts, and that it made history only added to the luster.

"It's an honor, a very weighty responsibility," she said. "It's important that we have a diverse judiciary. We have to feel like we're an inclusive community."

Black leaders in influential positions are nearly nonexistent in Pasco, a county with a population of more than 340,000 people -- 90 percent of whom are white. There's Robert Judson, president of Pasco-Hernando Community College. There's Eunice Penix, a Dade City council member. And now Roberts.

"We are all one big melting pot," said lawyer Paul Firmani, Pasco County's senior assistant public defender. "I think the judiciary should reflect that.

"I welcome the diversity she brings to the bench."

Roberts, who recently built a house in Trinity, grew up in Sanford, outside Orlando. She was raised in public housing, but "I never wanted for anything," she said. "I was never hungry. I always had clothing."

She attended segregated schools, where in science class all the students had to share one microscope. Her books were hand-me-downs from the white schools. She could not swim in the city pool. At the health clinic, there was one waiting room for blacks, another for whites.

"That was my frame of reference," she recalled in an interview in her chambers last week.

But after her junior year in high school, everything changed. Schools became integrated. Now, Roberts had her own microscope in science class. She had new textbooks.

"It was a realization that everything had been so unfair," she said.

Education would dominate Roberts' life for years. She attended Seminole Community College in her hometown, then enrolled in what is now the University of Central Florida in Orlando, earning a degree in social work. In 1978 she left Florida State University with a master's degree in social work.

She worked for the next three years as a counselor, first at a mental health center, then for a federal agency charged with lowering infant mortality rates in southwest Florida.

Then she went to law school at Florida State. She thought she could change the world, maybe as a lawmaker.

"Poor people had no access to health care," she said. "I was on a cause. I was going to represent the people being mistreated by the medical profession."

In law school, she worked as an intern for a state Senate subcommittee. The job helped pay her way through school. It also soured her on the lawmaking process.

When she graduated from law school in 1985, she took a job with the state Department of Business Regulation, where she honed her skills as a trial attorney. Then she went to work as a staff attorney for the Florida Supreme Court, advising the justices on administrative matters. It was in that job that the goal of someday becoming a judge took hold.

In 1994, she accepted a job as court counsel for the 6th Judicial Circuit, which encompasses Pasco and Pinellas counties. She served as chief legal adviser to the circuit's judges and court personnel on issues ranging from employment to ethical concerns.

At the same time, she served as a hearing officer on family law cases in Pasco County. Her work impressed Pasco Circuit Judge William Webb.

"She did a wonderful job as a hearing officer and displayed a remarkable sense of patience," said Webb, the county's administrative judge.

In November, she got a call from Gov. Bush: She would be a judge.

Roberts was the 21st black judge Bush has appointed since he took office in January 1999. That's 12 percent of the 174 judges he has appointed.

Webb said Roberts was an ideal choice.

"Her placement on the bench can do nothing but further a sense of confidence in individuals of all races in the integrity of the legal system," he said. "She's going to make a fine addition to Pasco's judiciary and she will be a great role model."

Roberts knows she has a lot to learn. For several weeks before she first took the bench on Jan. 25, Roberts sat in County Judge William Sestak's courtroom, taking notes and getting a feel for the job.

Still, that first day alone, in front of all those defendants, was intimidating. But now, after a week on the job, Roberts said she has settled into her new surroundings, just like she always has.

"I can do this job," she said.

For now, nights of reading novels have been replaced by the study of criminal law. Roberts, who is single and doesn't have children, takes her laptop home every night, poring over the minutia of case law and the state's criminal code.

This Friday, Roberts will be officially sworn in at an investiture ceremony. She has already taken a written oath, but the ceremony is what she has been waiting for. For Roberts, it will be like a reunion. Her family, of course, will be there. And, she says with a big smile, so will her childhood friends from Sanford.

"They are all so proud of me becoming a judge," she said. "They can't stop talking about it."

-- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is

cbdavis@sptimes.com.

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