Still Shiny

03/01/2023 02:09 AM By Lisa Anderson
Feature Story
Lori Cotton
Lori Cotton
Story by Taylor Strickland • Photos by Joshua Jacobs

Still Shiny

Newly-Elected Judge Loves Public Service

Most people recognize the name Lori Cotton from their 2022 election ballots, as well as the myriad pink and blue signs dotting the roadsides last election season. An unfortunate few may even know her from the view across the courtroom.

Lori is a former prosecutor and presiding judge of the 5th Judicial Circuit DUI Court. With 20 years of experience in public service, Lori is sure of her calling. However, many would be surprised to know how different her original plans were.

Music and Law

“When I was young, I wanted to be an astronaut,” Lori laughs. “In high school, I thought I was going to be a professional musician. Everybody thought I was going to be a professional musician–my parents, my teachers, everyone.”

The only obstacle holding Lori back from her musical aspirations was her altruistic nature. “I was going through auditions and I was excited about it, but I just couldn’t decide what to do. I knew I wanted to be in service to the community and help people.”

Lori grew up in Ohio, where she initially planned to attend Ohio State University as a music major. “I had an audition at Ohio State and I was talking to the professor after, and she said to me, ‘Well, you could double major in political science and music.’ That just seemed like the stupidest thing in the world to me, because what would you do with that? I felt like I had to make a decision.”

That decision would eventually lead Lori to Ocala, some 26 years ago. “When I first came here,” Lori says, “it was supposed to be a stepping stone. I knew I wanted to go to law school, so we moved here. It was in driving distance of the University of Florida. I thought I would move to a bigger city, because that was the cool thing to do.”

Lori fell in love Ocala’s Southern charm and small-town feel. “I interned at the state attorney’s office and really never looked back from that point. I got very involved with the theatre and all the different things we do here. It’s not quite the same in a big city.”

As for music, Lori still finds the opportunity to showcase her talent. “I sing in church on Sundays with the praise band. I play the clarinet and saxophone. I’ve been on stage a couple times, done a couple of plays, but I’m usually in music.

“I have to be creative,” Lori shares. “If I go too long without doing something that’s creative, I feel stifled.”

Jefferson and Hamilton

Lori credits her parents and her upbringing as the source of her desire to help people. “I was given every opportunity. So, because I had all of these things, I think it’s important to give back.”

It was the process of giving back that ultimately brought Lori and her husband together, despite a rough start. “We actually went on a blind date,” she proclaims. “We didn’t hit it off.”

A second chance came years later, while Lori was volunteering at her local church. “I was trying to show one of my children the value of helping other people,” she says dryly.

The youth pastor at Lori’s church was aware of their failed date and decided a little mischief was in order. “I think he thought it would be funny to see us work together. He assigned me to work at Steve’s table, so we started to work together week after week, and I thought, ‘Hey, this guy’s kind of funny. I kind of like him!’”

Lori and Steve worked well together, and their mutual affinity for philanthropy eventually evolved into something more. “He’s just a genuinely good person,” Lori says affectionately. “We can have very real conversations, and you can’t find that with just anyone.”

Given that both Lori and Steve had been married before, they weren’t interested in a traditional ceremony. “We just wanted our kids there,” Lori explains.

In her search for the unconventional, Lori read an article that said people could get married in front of the monuments in Washington D.C. As avid history fans, she and her husband were ecstatic. “We were married at the Jefferson Memorial. We really liked the symbolism of Jefferson and Hamilton and how they didn’t [agree] on everything, but they got things done.”

Personal and Professional

“When the opportunity came up to be a judge, I wasn’t really interested in doing it,” Lori admits. “You talk to a lot of young lawyers, and they say, ‘I want to be a judge someday.’ That was not me. I would have happily worked 30 years at the state attorney’s office and called that a good career.”

Lori’s friends and family encouraged her to go for it. “I decided, I have the experience. I know I can serve in this way and do well, so I figured I’d put my name in and give it a shot.”

The appointment process was difficult, but the real challenge came the following year. It was Lori’s first election season, and judicial opponents aren’t known for pulling their punches. “Things were brought up about my family. Things happened that were very challenging to deal with as a mother. It’s not fun to go through that,” she says softly.

“I have a daughter who deals with substance abuse issues,” Lori shares. “There was a night when she told us she was going to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous], but instead she got something to drink and actually caused a crash. She drove her car head-on into a family of three.

“It was absolutely horrific,” Lori confirms. “This was all happening when I was already a judge. When it became obvious that it was going to be made an issue politically, I made the decision to be very open about it.”

Lori is also open about how her daughter’s struggles have informed her career moving forward. “There was a perspective that I didn’t have until she caused this crash, and I’ve shared that with people who’ve come in front of me. I said, ‘You may feel this is the worst day of your life, you’ve been arrested, you’re standing in front of a judge, but you’re alive and you didn’t hurt anyone else. Now you have a chance to make different choices.’”

Since her appointment to the 5th Judicial Circuit in 2021, Lori has had a record year. She’s faced a disorienting combination of professional success and personal tumult, all the while presiding over her court with trademark solemnity and unfailing fairness.

Lori’s plans for the future involve much of what she’s doing now. “The job is incredible. I didn’t realize how much I was going to like it. The shiny newness of it still hasn’t faded. Every time I put the robe on, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m a judge!’ It’s humbling I’m trusted to do this, and I’m just so thankful.”

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