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Pinellas commission considers renaming buildings after legal icons

Commissioners have been asked to rename buildings after two prominent figures: longtime State Attorney Bernie McCabe and the county’s first full-time Black lawyer, Fred G. Minnis.
There are requests to name Pinellas County buildings after two legal icons: Former Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, left, and Fred G. Minnis Sr., right, Pinellas' first full-time black lawyer.
There are requests to name Pinellas County buildings after two legal icons: Former Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, left, and Fred G. Minnis Sr., right, Pinellas' first full-time black lawyer. [ Times files ]
Published Feb. 10
Updated Feb. 10

Pinellas commissioners on Tuesday considered requests to rename county buildings after two local legal icons.

One request, spearheaded by Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, is to rename the Pinellas County Justice Center after former Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who died in January.

The other is to rename one of the county’s three courthouses or the Pinellas County Law Library after Fred G. Minnis Sr., the county’s first full-time Black lawyer, who died in 1991.

That request came from the organization named in his honor, the Fred G. Minnis Sr. Bar Association, which was founded in 2000 to promote and support minority lawyers in Pinellas. President Danielle Weaver-Rogers said her association’s request, which was sent in December, is not intended to compete with the McCabe renaming effort. Aside from the Justice Center, the county has civil courthouses in St. Petersburg and Clearwater and the law library.

Commissioners did not make a decision and said they would continue the discussion at a March 4 work session.

Seel and Flowers both supported honoring Minnis. However, the bulk of Tuesday’s conversation focused on McCabe.

Commissioners were in agreement that his legacy from nearly 30 years as the circuit’s elected state attorney was worthy of recognition. In fact, Commissioner Kathleen Peters thought the board should bypass the county’s process altogether and approve the request.

Related: Bernie McCabe, Pinellas-Pasco’s top prosecutor, dies at age 73

However, other commissioners said they were concerned about the perception of naming the county’s main courthouse after a lawyer that represents only one side of the legal system. Several said they received emails, phone calls and texts from lawyers and other constituents urging caution.

“I’m going to take into account that you’re walking into a building and there’s the prosecution on one side, there’s the public defender or your private attorney on the other side,” Commissioner Rene Flowers said, “and what are your chances of feeling there’s equality or equity in the decisions that are being made?”

Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, previously worked for fellow Republican McCabe as a prosecutor and considers him a mentor. He asked commissioners to rename the justice center at 14250 49th St. N in a letter cosigned by recently appointed State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino and Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke. Former longtime Public Defender Bob Dillinger also joined the call in his own letter.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who died in January at the age of 73.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who died in January at the age of 73. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Commissioners discussed other options, such as naming the State Attorney’s Office within the courthouse after McCabe instead, or naming the justice center after both McCabe and Dillinger, who retired in December after more than 20 years leading the office.

In an email to commissioners after the meeting, defense attorney Haydee Oropesa, a critic of naming the courthouse after only McCabe, threw another name in the ring for a dual name: Robert Jagger, Pinellas-Pasco’s first public defender who died last year.

Related: Robert Jagger, first Pinellas-Pasco public defender, valued life and due process

“What is the sense of urgency that this has to be done right now, today?” Commissioner Janet Long asked Peters. “Because this commission has a long history, a rich history, of being very thoughtful, very considerate, considering everyone’s opinions and not making knee-jerk reactions.”

Peters pushed back, saying that McCabe’s legacy went beyond prosecuting crimes in that he supported programs that divert offenders away from the criminal justice system and into treatment or community service.

“It’s really not even emotional for me,” she said. “I feel very very strongly about his character and what he’s done in his past.”

The commission, however, barely discussed the case for Minnis, a longtime attorney and civil rights leader with his own formidable legacy. The letter from the Fred G. Minnis Sr. Bar Association — the county’s only predominantly African American lawyers’ association — and cosigned by several state lawmakers and organizations recounted his life.

Minnis was an immigrant from the Bahamas who helped raise money for his alma mater, Booker T. Washington High School, Miami’s first high school for Black students. He earned three degrees from Howard University and served in the military, where he provided support to the Tuskegee Airmen — the military’s first Black airmen.

Attorney Fred G. Minnis Sr. attorney, seen in this 1976 photo, was the first Black lawyer to establish a full-time practice in St. Petersburg.
Attorney Fred G. Minnis Sr. attorney, seen in this 1976 photo, was the first Black lawyer to establish a full-time practice in St. Petersburg. [ NORMAN ZEISLOFT | Times files ]

He was sworn into the Florida Bar in 1951 and, five years later, opened a practice in St. Petersburg. He represented students arrested for participating in sit-ins at the former Webb’s City lunch counter and argued a case to integrate county-owned golf courses.

“Due to his leadership and mentorship, generations of black lawyers and judges have practiced in Pinellas County,” the letter says. “Though we all still strive for equality in the law, due to his sacrifice and persistence, ‘justice for all’ became a reality within reach.”

Minnis’ grandson tuned into the meeting from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., to urge commissioners to honor the request.

“I think that my grandfather’s works are kind of under-appreciated,” Jason Minnis said. “He’s a very distinguished person who had a large and wide impact on a number of people.”