Suwannee Democrat

Local News

January 17, 2013

Dennis Roberts: A person for the people (+ video)

A defender in the courtroom and battlefield

Live Oak — Dennis Roberts has served as the public defender for the Third Judicial Circuit for 24 years and has now left the elected office for retirement. Roberts closed his briefcase on Dec. 31, 2012 and handed the office keys to the newly elected Blair Payne, who served as an assistant public defender to Roberts.

“My plans after retirement are still to be determined,” Roberts laughed. “I’m a little apprehensive about that right now. I don’t plan on practicing law. I’ve never been one to fish, hunt or golf. I don’t do any of those. I know it’s an old cliche, but I do plan on spending more time with my family.”

After graduating from Union County High School, Roberts enrolled at Lake City Community College. He completed just one year of college before joining the United States Marine Corp. Roberts spent two years in active duty; one of the two years was spent overseas during the time of the Vietnam War.

Roberts then continued his education at LCCC and graduated with honors. Roberts relocated to Gainesville and took undergraduate classes at the University of Florida. Following his graduation from Rollins College in 1980 with a Master of Science in Criminal Justice, Roberts packed his bags and moved back to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida’s School of Law.

“That was a busy time in my life,” he said. “During my first month of law school, my wife and I had our first child, I served on the Lake City City Council, and I was an officer in the National Guard.”

Prior to being elected as the public defender, Roberts also served as a public defender investigator and an assistant public defender. What makes Roberts unique, is that he is the only person in the state to serve in all three positions in a pubic defenders office.

Roberts was elected in 1989 to serve as the public defender. The first attorney he hired was Lee Peters Jr., an attorney he opposed often in Lafayette County. He also hired current Judge Lin Williams as an assistant.

“I look back and see how fortunate I’ve been to have a great 24 years in the office,” Roberts said.  “We’ve never had any type of scandal or anything that would lose the respect of the people. I think we served the people quite well.”

“When I first took office, there was only one office, in Lake City,” he said. “My first mission was to establish another full-time office that would be more accessible to the people. So within a year of being elected, we opened the office in Live Oak.”

Throughout the 24 year period in office, Roberts had very little changes in personnel. Williams eventually left the office to take the seat as a Third Circuit judge, but Peters remained with Roberts until his retirement.

“Probably one of the most memorable cases I worked was defending a husband and wife who were being tried for manslaughter and child neglect in essence they did not provide medical care for the child because of religious beliefs,” said Roberts. “The case arose in Columbia County, but due to the publicity and popularity of the case, the judge moved it to Suwannee County. The court ruled that they were guilty of manslaughter, but not guilty of child neglect. However, the appellate court overturned the guilty verdict of manslaughter.”

Roberts noted that both 20/20 and Court TV was on hand to cover the case “from gavel to gavel.”

During his career of practicing law, Roberts also served in the United States Army Reserves. Some of the highlights from his military career include being promoted to Second Lieutenant, Infantry Branch, graduating from US Army Infantry Officers School, graduated from US Judge Advocate Generals School from the University of Virginia, and served in all five major commands of Florida Army Nation Guard.

Roberts retired as Lieutenant Colonel from the US Army, Florida National Guard in 2007 with 32 years of service on his resume.

Roberts admits that his retirement is bittersweet.

“Although I am looking forward to spending more time with my family, I’m going to miss the people in the entire system. I am friends with pretty much everybody in the entire judicial system. I’m leaving the office in good hands. Blair Payne, who was one of my assistants, will be taking the position,” said Roberts. “I am extremely pleased that an attorney of that quality will be taking over the office.”

Spending time with his loving family is first on Robert’s list of things to do. Roberts is married to Tina, and they have three children: Dennille (AJ Decker), Daniel (Tara) and Dianna (Jay Swisher). The couple have two grandchildren, Lyla and Deacon, and another granddaughter, Eva, is expected in February.  


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