DADE CITY — No one in Pasco County has worn the black robe longer than Wayne Cobb. This is the 31st year on the circuit bench for Pasco's senior judge.
Which is why Cobb said it feels so weird not to be running for a 32nd.
"I felt kind of funny today, allowing the qualifying period to go by and not doing a thing," Cobb said on Friday. "I just felt like I should be doing something, and not just sitting here watching it go by."
That's because Cobb, 72, is facing mandatory retirement. Florida judges must retire at 70, but if their term is halfway over, they can finish it.
Cobb's last day will be Jan. 5.
Thus his seat on the Pinellas-Pasco bench will be open this coming election cycle. Three diverse candidates are vying to fill it:
• Kenneth L. Foote, 42, is a former Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor now in private practice in Port Richey. He is a graduate of Stetson University College of Law and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2000.
• Susan L. Gardner, 45, was a civil attorney who joined the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office two years ago. She works as a defense attorney in the New Port Richey office, became a member of the Bar in 1999 and is also a product of Stetson's law school.
• Robert A. Williams, 38, is a former Pinellas-Pasco prosecutor who has spent the past eight years practicing environmental and municipal law for Fowler White Boggs Banker P.A. in Tampa. He said he regularly does work for clients in Pasco County, joined the Bar in 1995 and got his law degree from Stetson, too.
Gardner and Williams both said they see the bench as a calling.
"I think I can make a difference," said Gardner, a mother of three. "I'm fair and honest and have a lot of common sense. I've seen all areas of practicing in civil and criminal."
"I think everybody has a place in the world, in society," said Williams, who has two children. "I think this is a calling for me. This is something I should do and would like to do."
Foote did not return several calls for comment this week.
He and Gardner are not the only Pasco-centric attorneys running for judge this cycle.
Veteran prosecutor Mary Handsel, who works in the New Port Richey division of the State Attorney's Office, is hoping to replace Pinellas Circuit Judge Marion Fleming.
Handsel, 43, joined the Bar in 1990 and is also a Stetson grad. She has spent 18 years with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, the last six supervising other attorneys in the New Port Richey office.
"I want a dedicated, professional, well-trained civil servant to represent the people of Pasco and Pinellas counties," said Handsel, who has two kids.
Two Pinellas attorneys are also running for that seat: Clearwater defense attorney Bruce G. Howie and Violet M. Assaid, who oversees the mental health division of the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office.
Cobb sits on the bench in Dade City and Fleming in Clearwater. But that doesn't necessarily mean the judges who replace them will sit there as well. Judicial assignments are periodically re-shuffled, though rookie judges often end up in Dade City or New Port Richey. Friday was the last day for judicial candidates to qualify.
Gardner has one blemish that she'll have to explain to voters. She was arrested in Pinellas County on May 24, 2003, on a misdemeanor charge of failing to appear in court.
The original infraction was a zoning violation. But Gardner said that she got the court dates mixed up. When she came to court to pay the fine, she said, the warrant was discovered and she was briefly detained.
"I'm not a perfect candidate," she said. "But in other respects I've got what it takes."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.