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Charlotte Anderson, Hillsborough judge and equal rights activist, dies at 72

Retired Hillsborough Circuit Judge Charlotte Anderson, left, appears with Ms. magazine founder, author and activist Gloria Steinem in 2015 at the first Helen Gordon Davis Waves of Change Luncheon at the Crowne Plaza Tampa Westshore. Anderson, who helped create a division dedicated solely to victims of domestic violence, died last month at the age of 72. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  TIMES]
Retired Hillsborough Circuit Judge Charlotte Anderson, left, appears with Ms. magazine founder, author and activist Gloria Steinem in 2015 at the first Helen Gordon Davis Waves of Change Luncheon at the Crowne Plaza Tampa Westshore. Anderson, who helped create a division dedicated solely to victims of domestic violence, died last month at the age of 72. [JAMES BORCHUCK | TIMES]
Published Jun. 4, 2016

TAMPA — Charlotte Anderson, a former Hillsborough County judge who helped create a division dedicated solely to victims of domestic violence, died last month at age 72.

Elected to the bench in 1994, Ms. Anderson presided over domestic violence cases, as well as run-of-the-mill civil suits, for 15 years. She was well-known as a champion of many causes, from women's rights to antidiscrimination protections for gays and lesbians, and a fixture in local Democratic Party politics.

"She was a real pioneer as a woman's activist," said Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida, an LGBT advocacy group. "To have somebody of her profile be visibly supporting our work at a time when there weren't a whole lot of people racing to stand up really mattered."

Although friends said Ms. Anderson was a deeply private person, she was never quiet about her activism. In 1978, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to take part in a march organized by leaders of the movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. She was one of the founders of the Tampa chapter of the National Organization for Women and served as its president. And, before she became a judge, she held one of the first fundraisers for Equality Florida when the group was so young, it went by a different name: the Human Rights Task Force of Florida.

Those closest to Ms. Anderson said she was fond of fast, red cars and her two cairn terriers. She could be extremely stubborn and wickedly funny.

Chris Ross, who befriended Ms. Anderson in the 1980s when she was just out of law school, said she refused to be pushed around. Ross recalled an incident in which Ms. Anderson walked into a Seminole Heights convenience store just as the clerk was being robbed at gunpoint by a teen.

"She just immediately confronted him," Ross said. "She literally talked him into handing her the gun, and then she let him run away before the police came."

Ms. Anderson was born in 1943 in San Antonio, Fla., and grew up in Dade City, the youngest child in a family of four much older siblings. According to her nephew Clyde Hobby, Ms. Anderson was raised primarily by her mother, Ollie Anderson, who worked at the now-defunct fruit shipping business Pasco Packing, and her oldest sister.

She attended Pasco High School and earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of South Florida. For nine years, she taught English in public schools in Tampa and New Port Richey.

Ms. Anderson found the law late in life. At age 37, she enrolled in the Florida State University College of Law, graduating into a job with the Tampa firm of Mitcham, Weed, Barbas, Allen & Morgan, where she practiced family law for more than a decade.

"Charlotte was always a person that liked to express herself and had ideas of her own, so to speak, and I think she probably saw being a lawyer as a way to express what she believed in," Hobby said. Her interest in family law may have come from her experience being raised by a working single mother, he said.

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Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas, who worked with Ms. Anderson before both became judges, described her as the "conscience of our law firm."

"She had a great heart," Barbas said, listing Ms. Anderson's contributions to the Humane Society of Tampa Bay and the Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women in Tampa.

"About the only time we disagreed on civil rights or rights in general was when the firm voted not to allow smoking in the building anymore," he said. "She was an avid smoker."

In 1994, Ms. Anderson ran for an open seat on the Hillsborough bench, from which she would preside as a county judge and acting circuit judge until her early retirement in 2009. By that time, she was suffering from a pinched sciatic nerve in her spine and sleep apnea.

"It's a great job, and I loved doing it," she said of her reluctance to leave before her term ended. But, she joked, "People just don't like to see their judge up there snoozing away."

Ms. Anderson's retirement allowed her to return to the public activism that had defined her, and in which judges are forbidden from engaging, but her health worsened in the years that followed. She died at home after suffering a fall and was found on May 24.

"She was like the coach that gives you that tough love, but she does it because she wants you to be better," Smith said. "For 20-plus years, she's been that voice in my ear."

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

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