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 are paid $172,015 annually, as of July 1. Judicial races are nonpartisan and open to all voters in the Nov. 8 general election.
Pinellas County Court Judge
Group 1: Della Cope
Della Cope was our first choice in the three-way primary race, and she remains so in the general election. Cope, who won 44.1% of the vote in the primary, has the experience, demeanor and legal acumen to make a first-rate judge in county court — 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, 43, has a bachelor’s and a law degree from the University of Florida and 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 have former Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober and the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association. After placing third in the primary, David Moran also endorsed Cope; he got 26.5% of the vote.
Since 2019, Cope 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 faces lawyer Megan Roach, who placed second in the primary with 29.4% of the vote. 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.
Roach has participated in five jury trials and more than 200 bench trials, according to her Florida Bar disclosure statement. She told the Times that she is running because she wants to serve her community and she hopes to bring a different background to the bench than judges coming from a prosecutorial or public defender background.
Cope, though, has more experience than Roach. She also is a clear communicator, which will be a benefit in county court. Her skill set puts he in a better position to help give valuable feedback to rookie lawyers who often cut their teeth in county court.
For Pinellas County Judge, Group 1, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Della Cope.
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Hillsborough County Court Judge
Group 14: Melissa Black
Melissa Black was the top-vote getter in this four-way August primary, and she is the standout in this general election race. Her legal experience, civic contributions and dedication to the most vulnerable make her uniquely suited for the people’s arena that is county court.
Black, 42, was born in Brandon and has lived in Hillsborough County for more than 35 years. A graduate of the University of Florida and Stetson College of Law, Black began her career as an assistant attorney general in Hillsborough representing the Florida Department of Children and Families in child dependency and termination of parental rights cases. She then founded her own firm and continued to work in the juvenile dependency system, representing foster children, victims of human trafficking and children with special needs.
Challenger Mike Isaak, 57, graduated from Rollins College and the Cumberland School of Law. A former state prosecutor, Isaak has been in private practice since 1997, handling criminal defense, civil litigation and traffic cases. Isaak has handled scores of jury trials and understands the busy nature of county court. He is known as hard-working and seems able to move a crowded docket.
Black, though, brings that same comfort in the courtroom but also an unusual passion for using the law for public good. She talks movingly of how every case involves a human being. Her volunteer work on behalf of foster children shows an appreciation for the difference a single person can make in the life of a struggling child. That’s a critical lens for ensuring that individuals are not lost in the hubbub of county court. Black has the makings of a role model for the judiciary and for younger lawyers who would appear before her.
The Tampa Bay Times recommends Melissa Black for Hillsborough County Court Judge, Group 14.
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.