TAMPA — The lawyer that Gov. Ron DeSantis tapped Thursday to be Hillsborough County’s top prosecutor in some ways is the opposite of her predecessor.
Susan Shorter Lopez grew up in Tampa, worked almost her entire career in the office she now leads and is a familiar face to people in the local legal community.
Andrew Warren, whom DeSantis ousted Thursday over what the governor said was his refusal to enforce the law, grew up in Gainesville, had an early career as a federal prosecutor based in Washington, D.C., and was largely unknown in Tampa when he ran to be state attorney in 2016, though he since has become known for his political outspokenness.
Those who know Lopez say she is not particularly political, but is known for a pragmatic approach to handling cases.
“She’s not a zealot in any way,” said U.S. District Judge Thomas Barber. “I’d say her approach is practical, common sense.”
How different will she be? It seems too early to say.
As of Friday, she’d made no major changes to the State Attorney’s Office policies or personnel.
“State Attorney Lopez is acclimating to her new role, having been sworn into office yesterday, and will be addressing the media in a more formal manner next week,” said Melanie Snow Waxler, the office spokesperson.
“Something that definitely shouldn’t get lost in all this excitement is that she is our first female state attorney in Hillsborough County,” said Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella. “I think that’s a big part of this story.”
Lopez hadn’t been gone from the State Attorney’s Office, where she had worked for 16 years, for long. Before she became a county judge late last year, she was a deputy chief in the felony division in Warren’s office, supervising junior prosecutors while also handling homicides, drug trafficking, violent crimes and other cases.
She’d applied four times for judicial vacancies before DeSantis selected her in December.
“A judge must follow the law,” she wrote in her application. “It is not the role of the judge to legislate.”
On Thursday, she appeared with the governor and law enforcement officers as DeSantis announced he had removed Warren from office and appointed Lopez as his replacement. Lopez said in the news conference that she was “caught off-guard” when DeSantis called her days ago.
“I was sitting very happily as a judge, which has been a life-changing and fulfilling form of service,” she said. “But when the governor calls you to a different service, you answer. So here I am.”
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Those who know her say she has a reputation for fairness.
“One of the things I noticed about her is there wasn’t a lot of tension between her and the defense attorneys because they respected her,” said Sabella, who presided in several cases Lopez prosecuted.
Lopez, 45, lives in her childhood home in Tampa. She attended Tampa Preparatory School and graduated from Plant High School in 1995.
She grew up attending St. John’s Episcopal Church with her parents and as an adult took on leadership roles there, said the Rev. Charles “Chip” Connelly, a rector emeritus for St. John’s.
”She is, I think, a person of high level of integrity in everything she does,” he said.
Lopez earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and political science in 1999 from Middlebury College in Vermont. She then earned a law degree in 2002 from Suffolk University in Boston.
She worked as a staff attorney at the 2nd District Court of Appeal for two years. She became an assistant state attorney in Hillsborough County in 2005 during the tenure of Mark Ober.
She first worked in the misdemeanor division and later graduated to felony courtrooms.
She was a frequent presence in Barber’s courtroom through 2019, when he was appointed to the federal bench. He found her to be a problem-solver.
“When we had a difficult case, or something that needed to get worked out ... Suzy is who I wanted in that conversation,” Barber said. “She was my go-to person for getting things resolved in a commonsense way.”
Cases she handled as a prosecutor were often complicated, if not high-profile.
She was the lead prosecutor in the case of Thomas Elmore, a former paramedic convicted of shooting his girlfriend and trying to stage the scene to look like a suicide. A jury deliberated eight hours before finding him guilty of second-degree murder.
Other cases listed in her judicial application include a 2014 drug trafficking investigation involving 29 defendants, wire tap interceptions of 13 cell phones and hundreds of hours of police surveillance.
Joe Caimano, who has been practicing criminal defense law in Tampa for some two decades, has years of experience working opposite Lopez while she was a prosecutor. They each started out handling lower level crimes and progressed to racketeering and drug trafficking cases. He found her accessible and cordial, and never political.
”It was simply this,” he said, “What’s the evidence in the case? What does that law say about the charge and what’s fair?”
Lopez supported Ober when Warren ran against him in 2016. State records show she also gave money to the 2018 campaign of Ashley Moody, who was a local criminal court judge before she was elected Florida’s attorney general that year.
One thing legal observers expect Lopez to address is what’s perceived as low morale among Tampa prosecutors. Many in recent years have left the office for the private sector or other government jobs.
A Tampa Bay Times review of hire dates and salary data found that as of April, a little more than half of the the attorneys in Warren’s office had worked there fewer than five years.
Warren, in interviews, has acknowledged problems with turnover, but noted that’s a statewide issue. Some prosecutors take offers to make more money in the private sector.
“I think she’ll be looking at getting that office so it’s a place that people want to work,” said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Jennifer Gabbard, who was Lopez’s supervisor when both worked for the state attorney’s office.
Judge Denise Pomoponio, who administered the oath of office to Lopez, worked in neighboring judicial chambers with her when she joined the bench. Like other judges and lawyers, she described Lopez as hard-working and eager to volunteer her time.
“I think she will bring her own self to the job,” Pomponio said. “She’s not going to be like Mark (Ober). She’s going to be Suzy Lopez and she’s going to do what needs to be done. She knows what the criminal justice system is about and she’s going to do what it’s set up to do.”
Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report.