Florida House Speaker Rep. Chris Sprowls wants the county commission to rename the Pinellas County Justice Center after late Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.
McCabe, who died Jan. 1 at age 73, “left an unrivaled legacy in the pantheon of Florida justice seekers,” wrote Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican and former prosecutor who used to work for the State Attorney’s Office.
The letter sent Wednesday to the Pinellas County Commission was co-signed by Acting State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, who was McCabe’s chief assistant, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Pinellas Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke and Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino.
“Mr. McCabe was fond of asking his young prosecutors when they asked him what they should do on a case, ‘What is the right thing to do?’ He had a way of making complex decisions easy with keen moral clarity,” the letter says.
“Naming the building that he walked into every day to serve as a minister of justice, well ... it’s the right thing to do. We hope you will.”
The State Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices are located inside the sprawling Justice Center at 14250 49th Street N, along with courtrooms, judge’s chambers and the office of the clerk and comptroller.
Defense attorney Haydee Oropesa on Friday emailed the commissioners and those who signed the letter and told them she plans to publicly oppose renaming the courthouse after the region’s longtime prosecutor, who represents just one side of the criminal justice system.
“The Courthouse is supposed to represent Truth and Justice (and neither side of a case is the absolute holder of those ideals),” she said, “and it is supposed to be blind not visually focused on any one side.”
McCabe began working at the State Attorney’s Office in 1972 and, other than two years in which he moved back to his hometown of Mount Dora after his father died, spent his four-decade legal career working there. He was elected to the top job in 1992 and has been reelected ever since.
Among Florida’s legal and political community, McCabe was known as a mentor to young lawyers, a whip-smart litigator, and an advocate for crime victims, police officers and children. He served for 20 years on the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board and was one of the first state attorneys in Florida to start drug and veterans’ treatment courts.
“He could be fierce when he needed to be, but his heart was one in constant search of truth and righteousness,” the letter says.
McCabe had been in bad health for some time, friends and colleagues said. In February, he suffered what he called an “adverse health event” before the pandemic and started working from home. He provided no details about his health then. He was days away from starting his eighth term when he died. The chief judge appointed Bartlett, McCabe’s longtime chief assistant, to run the agency until the governor appoints an interim state attorney.
According to the county’s honorary naming rights policy, any group of citizens can submit a proposal to name a county-owned or controlled building after someone.
The county administrator will then create a committee to consider the proposal, and that committee will make a recommendation to county commissioners, who have the final say.