Judges in county court preside over misdemeanor criminal cases, traffic offenses and civil disputes involving $30,000 or less. County court judges are elected to six-year terms and paid $172,015 annually, as of July 1. Judicial races are nonpartisan and open to all voters. If no candidate wins a majority in the Aug. 23 primary, the top two vote-getters face off in the general election Nov. 8.
Group 1: Della Cope
Three first-time candidates are vying for this open seat. Della Cope stands out as the best of the group.
Cope, 43, has the right mix of experience, smarts and demeanor to handle what is often referred to as “the people’s court,” where many participants have their first interaction with the judicial system and many represent themselves, instead of hiring a lawyer.
Cope, who has a bachelor’s and a law degree from the University of Florida, started her legal career as a prosecutor in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office. Over a decade that included hundreds of felony cases, she earned a reputation for congeniality, hard work and professionalism. She handled more than 70 jury trials and also supervised other attorneys as assistant county court director.
In 2014, she went to work as part of the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office’s litigation team. She helped defend the agency and its employees against lawsuits and also handled a variety of other cases from forfeiture to procedural matters to disputes over evidence. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has endorsed Cope for judge, as has former Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober and the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association.
Since 2019, she has worked in a small private firm handling mostly civil cases. During that time, she also represented the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office in risk protection orders, where a court can temporarily restrict a person’s access to firearms if the person poses a significant danger to themselves or others.
Cope’s breadth of experience and superior communication skills would position her well to handle the rigors of the people’s court, including helping give valuable feedback to rookie lawyers who often cut their teeth in county court.
David Constantine Moran, 44, is a board certified criminal trial lawyer with 17 years’ experience. He started his legal career in Pinellas at the public defender’s office, before going out into private practice for about three years, and then returning to the public defender’s office in 2011, where he still works. The current and former Pinellas-Pasco public defenders, Sara Mollo and Bob Dillinger, have endorsed his campaign, as has former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
He said he has a deep sense of public service, and he’s served on several legal boards including the Pinellas Association of Legal Defense Lawyers and has volunteered with several groups including Keep Pinellas Beautiful, the St. Pete Free Clinic food pantry and the Lunch Pals mentoring program.
Megan Roach, 34, is a partner at the local firm Zinober, Diana & Monteverde. She graduated from Stetson University College of Law in 2012. She’s a civil attorney who has practiced mostly in the fields of property defense, general liability and commercial litigation.
Cope’s demeanor and legal chops position her well for this job. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Della Cope for Pinellas County Court Judge, Group 1.
Group 13: Kathleen “Kathy” Hessinger
Incumbent Kathleen “Kathy” Hessinger, 57, has done a good job on the county court bench, and voters should be comfortable electing her to another term.
She was elected in 2004 and then reelected without opposition in 2010 and 2016. After graduating from Stetson University College of Law in 1990, she worked as a prosecutor for about three years and a dozen more in private practice handling civil cases including plaintiff litigation, medical malpractice defense, nursing home defense and other insurance matters. She has also taught trial advocacy at Stetson as an adjunct professor.
She has worked in the small claims, county civil and unified family court divisions, and currently handles criminal cases that involve misdemeanor charges. She says she likes to help people navigate their problems and find ways to improve their lives so they don’t end up back in criminal court. She’s endorsed by Pinellas Clerk of Circuit Court and Comptroller Ken Burke, Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Sara Mollo and two former Pinellas sheriffs, Jim Coats and Everett Rice.
Her opponent, Ken Afienko, worked as a police officer with the Madeira Beach Police Department from 1982-1995, winning the “Officer of the Year” award twice and retiring as a detective sergeant. He also served as interim police chief for four months in 1991. He received a law degree from Stetson in 1998, and continued to work as a part-time officer with the Pinellas Park Police Department until 2015. Afienko also worked as a lawyer in private practice from 1998 until today, first handling mostly personal injury cases and then police union litigation including shootings, serious car crashes, pension matters and disciplinary appeals. According to his financial disclosure, most of his income last year came from St. Petersburg College, where he’s a professor of criminal justice and public administration.
Hessinger combines intelligence, experience and a solid judicial demeanor, which helps her run her courtroom efficiently. We believe she will continue to do the same over the next six-year term. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Kathleen “Kathy” Hessinger for Pinellas County Judge, Group 13.
Group 4: Patrick Moore
This race was a close call, but we give the edge to Patrick Moore.
Moore, 37, earned his law degree from Florida Coastal School of Law in 2010 and joined the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office, where he prosecuted cases ranging from misdemeanors to murders to crimes against children to robberies. In 2016, he became a senior assistant county attorney in Pasco where he has litigated complex civil cases, prosecuted county ordinances and advised the Pasco County commissioner on legal issues, among other tasks.
Moore has served as a legal adviser to administrative boards including the Pasco County Construction Board and the Animal Services Advisory Committee. He volunteers as a mentor with Pasco Take Stock of Children, which helps low-income children maintain good grades and behavior, graduate from high school, attend college and become productive citizens.
Moore’s colleagues say he is sharp lawyer and a team player and has the demeanor to be a good judge. He’s endorsed by Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco, Florida Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls, Pasco Tax Collector Mike Fasano and several first responder unions.
Clementine “CC” Conde, 57, has 30 years of experience as a lawyer. She worked for the public defender’s office from 1993-2006 before moving into private practice. She currently owns her own law firm. She said she is in court in Pasco County most work days, and she’s been lead counsel in more than 200 jury trials. She’s known for being smart and well prepared, and is AV preeminent rated, the highest rating awarded in Martindale Hubbard peer-review process. Former Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger endorsed her, though current Public Defender Sara Mollo endorsed Moore.
Moore has less experience, though he’s experienced enough to fill the county judge job. The Tampa Bay Times recommends Patrick Moore for Pasco County Judge, Group 4.
The recommendation process
Before making a recommendation, the Times Editorial Board asks candidates to fill out questionnaires and sit for an interview. The process can also include running criminal and civil background checks, interviewing candidates’ colleagues and employers, reviewing voting records and financial disclosures and examining their past and current positions on relevant issues.
Candidates not recommended by the editorial board are offered an opportunity to reply. Judicial candidates may send replies of up to 150 words by 5 p.m. Aug. 4 to Editor of Editorials Graham Brink at email@example.com.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.