One day she’s a Tampa judge, then a state attorney in a political storm


TAMPA — Since Susan Lopez’s lightning appointment in August as Hillsborough County’s interim state’s attorney, controversies have been large and small.

The biggest, of course, was the surprise removal of then-State Attorney Andrew Warren by Governor Ron DeSantis. The governor accused the twice-elected prosecutor of refusing to enforce certain laws, while Warren called his removal political revenge. He is now suing DeSantis in federal court to get his job back.

Also controversial have been the changes Lopez made without wasting time, including reversing Warren’s policies not to prosecute certain nonviolent misdemeanors or arrests that resulted from an officer pulling over a bicyclist, known locally as ‘riding a bike being black’. Those policies were cited in the governor’s order to remove Warren.

“We’re going back to basics,” Lopez said.

His changes have been applauded by some but condemned by others who say Lopez is making criminal justice decisions as monumental as seeking the death penalty without winning a single vote from the people of Hillsborough County.

“Anything related to whatever it is that brought me here, I answered a call for duty,” Lopez said in a recent hour-long interview with the Tampa Bay Times about his sudden career change and what comes next. “I’m here.”

State Attorney Susan Lopez reviews the documents while listening to a recent first appearance court hearing. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

As the county’s top prosecutor, Lopez oversees 331 attorneys, investigators and other staff, a position she is expected to hold until at least after Warren’s Nov. 29 trial in Tallahassee as she tries to get her job back, longer if appeal the judge’s decision. , and until 2025 if Warren loses.

Lopez said she has been warmly received “with open arms” at the office where she worked as a prosecutor for 17 years. She visits courtrooms every day and said she “absolutely” plans to try the cases herself.

“I’m home,” he said.

A photo of Acting State's Attorney Susan Lopez, above, the state's first female prosecutor, was recently added to the lobby wall of the Pat Frank Courts building in Tampa.  Suspended State's Attorney Andrew Warren is shown at lower right. [SUE CARLTON | Times]
A photo of Acting State’s Attorney Susan Lopez, above, the state’s first female prosecutor, was recently added to the lobby wall of the Pat Frank Courts building in Tampa. Suspended State’s Attorney Andrew Warren is shown at lower right. [SUE CARLTON | Times]

Originally from South Tampa, she attended Tampa Preparatory School and Plant High and earned her law degree from Suffolk University School of Law in Boston. She is single and in a 2021 court petition she cited her involvement with the Junior League of Tampa and St. John’s Episcopal Church.

These days, Lopez, 45, appears to be fully ensconced at work. Days before Hurricane Ian, as workers were sandbagging the doors of a nearly deserted courthouse, she was at her large desk, drinking a can of Fresca and wearing white sneakers in deference to the weather.

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A photo of her and Mark Ober, the acting state’s attorney she supported when Warren narrowly defeated him in 2016, is hidden in the corner of her desk. Most people call her Suzy.

“There was a rumor that I was going to insist on being called Susan,” Lopez said.

On a coat rack, along with a fluorescent vest for use in traffic homicide scenes, hangs his judicial robes, a reminder of the job he left abruptly at the governor’s request.

State Attorney Susan Lopez works at her desk.  The court robes from her previous work hang in her current office.
State Attorney Susan Lopez works at her desk. The court robes from her previous work hang in her current office.

Lopez had put her name up for judicial appointment four times before DeSantis put her on the county court in 2021.

“I loved being a judge,” he said.

That court appointment led her to name her female English bulldog Rhonda Santis. Like the governor, the new dog was “changing my life,” she said.

A second bulldog who August called for “the craziest month of my life” when he suddenly became a state’s attorney.

Did Lopez think that becoming a judge would be the pinnacle of his legal career? “Until I got the call,” he said, “yes.”

Have you ever wanted to be a state attorney? “I’ll be honest, it was something I hadn’t thought about,” she said.

One personnel move noted by those closely watching the Warren ouster and its aftermath was the presence from Fred Piccolo, DeSantis’s former director of communications, after Lopez took office.

Gary Weisman, Warren’s chief of staff and now Lopez, said the office had been working with an outside communications adviser under Warren. But that consultant went to work with Warren when Warren was suspended.

Weisman said that he knew Piccolo, and that it was him and not the Governor who hired him. He said Piccolo was in the job for a week or two after Lopez was appointed. Piccolo is not employed there, but he does work on call, Weisman said.

As with a new boss, the little things at first can catch the attention of employees. Like the pantyhose controversy.

Rumors swirled around the courthouse that prosecutors who wear skirt suits to jury trials would also have to wear stockings, hosiery that many have avoided in recent years. (The New York Times fashion director referred to tights as “a giant generational, occupational, and cultural lightning rod,” and the Detroit Free Press headlined a 2015 style piece “Why Pantyhose Will Never Come Back.”)

But Lopez said that as “a kind reminder,” he had reposted via email the office’s general dress code that has been in place since 2014, which includes a requirement to wear pantyhose during the test. Lopez said he “would like people to follow him,” but he doesn’t plan to police pantyhose.

“No one has ever been disciplined for not wearing pantyhose in a trial,” Lopez said. That “to be continued”.

Until Warren’s case is resolved, Lopez will undoubtedly be under scrutiny. After her suspension, Warren referred to her as “an accomplice of Ron DeSantis.”

Lopez says he’s largely unaware of what’s going on politically and with Warren’s reinstatement quest. “They tell me what I need to be told, but I can’t get bogged down in it,” he said.

If Warren gets the job back, would he seek a judgeship again? Lopez won’t say.

“This is my approach. This is my life right now,” she said. “I’m moving forward one day at a time.”

Staff Writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.


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