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Pasco's first black judge is appointed

Debra Roberts will take the bench in January, hearing mostly misdemeanor criminal cases in New Port Richey.

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 16, 2001

Debra Roberts, the attorney for the Pasco-Pinellas judicial circuit, was named Pasco's newest judge on Thursday, becoming the county's first African-American jurist.

Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Roberts, 48, to fill a new county judge position that will be based in the New Port Richey Courthouse. She is expected to take the bench in late January, presiding mostly over criminal misdemeanor cases.

"I'm really excited," Roberts said Thursday. "I'm looking forward to serving the citizens of Pasco County."

Roberts, who is a Florida native and lives in Trinity, said the appointment is the culmination of her lifelong ambition to become a judge. Equally gratifying, she said, is the historical significance of becoming the first African-American to sit on the bench in Pasco.

"Certainly it's historic," Roberts said. "It's important that we have diversity on the bench, and I'm glad to be the one to have that chance."

The appointment, Roberts said, runs until 2004, when she will have to stand for election.

Roberts has been the court counsel for the 6th Judicial Circuit since 1994, serving as chief legal adviser to judges and court personnel on issues ranging from employment to ethical concerns. She also has gotten a taste of her future job by serving as a hearing officer in Pasco.

Judges who have worked closely with Roberts praised her as a hard-working, thoughtful attorney who follows the letter of the law rather than advocating loose interpretations.

"She's got a marvelous work ethic," said Pinellas Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, who served for six years as the circuit's chief judge. "She is very conservative in her approach to the law. She's not going to be an activist judge. She follows the law. She doesn't create it."

Said Pasco Circuit Judge William Webb: "I've been very impressed by her very thoughtful decisions and her courteous but in-charge demeanor."

Both Schaeffer and Webb said Roberts will bring much-needed diversity to the bench in Pasco.

"A diverse bench has to be a factor in the public's perception that justice will be meted out in an evenhanded and colorblind manner," said Webb, who is the administrative judge in Pasco.

"Any time you have a qualified candidate who brings diversity to the bench, the governor should take a serious look at that person and I commend him for doing that," Schaeffer said.

Bush chose Roberts over three other finalists: Declan Mansfield, Phil Cohen and Beverly Plummer.

"Debra Roberts possesses the skills, knowledge and background that will allow her to serve the citizens of Pasco County fairly and with great integrity," said Elizabeth Hirst, the governor's press secretary.

Hirst was unable to provide a breakdown of the number of minority and female judicial appointments Bush has made since he took office in 1998.

Roberts, who is single, grew up in Sanford and earned her law degree from Florida State University in 1985. She also holds a master's degree from FSU in social work. She earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Before taking the job as court counsel for the 6th Judicial Circuit, Roberts was a senior staff attorney for the Florida Supreme Court.

-- 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

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