Morley, Hyslop, Takac and Merritt would serve best

A Times Editorial
Published August 21, 2006

The state Legislature created three new judgeships for the 5th Judicial Circuit, which includes Hernando, Citrus, Lake, Sumter and Marion counties. In addition, a judge's retirement has opened up another seat.

These are nonpartisan positions and voters in all five counties will choose the circuit judges, who serve four-year terms and earn $145,080 a year.

The circuit is roughly the size of Connecticut and has more than 750,000 residents. Last year there were about 36,000 court filings in the circuit.

The Times' recommendations follow. Readers should note that in the races that have more than two candidates, a winner must receive 50 percent, plus one, of the vote total. If that does not happen, the top two vote-getters will be in a runoff in the general election on Nov. 7.

Group 7: Michelle T. Morley

Ten years ago only one judge in the 5th Judicial Circuit was a woman. Today, there are five. Still, that is less than 20 percent of the 28 judges in the five-county circuit.

Voters have a chance to improve that imbalance of gender on the bench by voting for Michelle Morley, the better of two candidates seeking the Group 7 judgeship.

In 2005 Morley was a finalist for a newly created opening in the circuit, which is an indication that members of the Judicial Nominating Commission also recognized her scope of experience and evenhanded attitude about the law and those who rely on it for justice.

Judicial races typically draw as many yawns as voters, but Morley belies that trend by being refreshingly frank and down-to-earth. Asked if she would be capable of sentencing someone to death, she said yes, she would follow the law, but quickly added, "It wouldn't be easy. I'd lose sleep over it. I'm a Catholic, and I have great respect for human life."

Such sincerity, coupled with an unassuming sense of humor and deference for impartiality, are cornerstones on which to build a solid judicial temperament.

Morley, 48, has gained broad experience as a private attorney, and used it to hone her skills as a certified family law mediator and as an arbitrator. In addition, she has shared her knowledge by teaching various law classes at Lake-Sumter Community College for most of the past decade.

Her opponent is Scott Wynn, 49, who is making his second run for a 5th Circuit judgeship. Wynn, of Groveland, is a capable attorney with experience mostly in civil, family and real estate law, but he lacks Morley's authenticity and enthusiasm.

This new judge will hold court in Bushnell, where Morley lives. We recommend voters give her a chance to serve them there.

Group 29: Peyton Bush Hyslop

Some of Peyton Hyslop's actions while presiding over Hernando County Court for 15 years earned him the scorn of law enforcement officials and a Broken Gavel award in a national magazine as one of America's worst judges.

Those same decisions, however, also won him praise by citizens for his unstinting fairness. And he was vindicated by the Florida Supreme Court, which upheld his right to lower bail amounts for defendants at their first court appearance.

Hyslop, 53, believes that blind adherence to the bail schedule means that people who cannot afford bail for minor offenses often spend more time in jail awaiting a court date than they would have had they been convicted of the crime. He sometimes would lower the bail after hearing the details of the alleged crime, incurring the anger of police and prosecutors.

Hyslop is unapologetic. "What's legal and what's right are not necessarily the same thing," he said.

Hyslop lost a bid for re-election in 2004 and now joins Ocala attorney Edward L. Scott and Assistant State Attorney Sandy Hawkins of Belleview in seeking the position of circuit court judge in Group 29.

Scott, 53, has touched on nearly every aspect of the law during his career. He has been in private legal practice for 18 years, handling thousands of cases including an age discrimination suit involving former Florida Power workers that ultimately went before the U.S. Supreme Court.

He has worked in both the State Attorney's Office and as a public defender. Before that, he was a police officer in Ocala, a Marion County deputy and a major crimes investigator.

Scott says his professional background, his life experiences and a calm temperament have prepared him for the bench. He pledges to treat everyone who comes into court fairly and with respect and dignity.

Hawkins, 51, has been a prosecutor for nine years and has handled thousands of cases, by her estimate. Raising six boys has taught her the value of patience, listening and mediation, all keys to being a successful judge.

Hawkins' background is exclusively in criminal court, where she has come into daily contact with domestic violence victims, people dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues and others. She has a genuine concern for the public and has been able to help thousands navigate the legal system.

While Scott has an impressive range of legal expertise, both he and Hawkins lack the one element that Hyslop can claim: Actual judicial experience.

Hardly a darling of law enforcement, Hyslop earned a reputation as a fair and caring jurist, one who has taken the time to explain to people in court just what was going on as well as the reasons behind his rulings.

Hyslop's courage, independence, temperament and judicial experience give him an edge in this race among three highly qualified attorneys. The Times recommends voters elect him to the Circuit Court Group 29 bench.

Group 30: Michael G. Takac

Michael Takac is persistent. The Ocala attorney again is seeking a seat on the Circuit Court, and he hopes the third time is the charm.

Takac, 44, lost to Steven Spivey in 2004; in 2002, he lost a close race to incumbent Judge Carven Angel.

His opponent in the Group 30 race, attorney Mike Gourley, 44, of Ocala, is making his second run for elective office, having lost a race for County Court judge in Marion County in 1998.

Gourley and Takac each bring impressive credentials to the race as they vie for a judgeship that will be based in Lake County.

Gourley highlights his achievement of being board certified by the Florida Bar, in recognition of his expertise in criminal law. Gourley worked for 13 years in the 5th Circuit Public Defender's Office, and for the past five-plus years, he has been in private practice at a small firm that has a policy of representing law enforcement officers at no cost.

Takac now works for the Florida Attorney General's Office, after a six-year stint in private practice. From 1997-99, Takac served as assistant general counsel in the governor's legal office.

Takac likes to say he has worked for governors in both parties and that he has represented everyone from the governor to single mothers, in courtrooms from Pensacola to the Florida Keys.

Gourley brings extensive courtroom experience. By his count, he has handled more than 5,000 cases, including 150-plus jury trials. He also says that as a husband and the father of two children, he has a greater insight than the unmarried Takac into the lives of the people who would come before him in a courtroom.

For his part, Takac says growing up the son of German and Hungarian immigrants and being a coach of youth sports have given him plenty of real-world experience.

Takac and Gourley have similar views on legal issues .Both believe the sentencing guidelines take away discretion from judges. Both would give great weight to the victim's views in plea bargains. Both say they would bring common sense to the bench.

Indeed, both would make fine judges, and our hope is that if he is not successful this time out, Gourley runs again.

Based on his broad experience in the public and private sectors, Takac has earned a spot on the Circuit Court bench and we recommend voters choose him for the Group 30 seat.

Group 31: Daniel B. Merritt Jr.

The winner of a three-way race for Group 31 circuit judge will spend most of his days in Brooksville, so it is not surprising that all three candidates live in Hernando County.

But the one whose roots run the deepest in the community, Daniel B. Merritt Jr., seems to have a better understanding of the people he would be judging, an intangible that complements his varied experience as an attorney and rounds out his candidacy.

Merritt, 43, has been in private practice in Brooksville for 16 years. During that time he has specialized in family, probate, business and real estate law. That is not the sexy image of a litigator one might see on television, but those types of cases account for most of the filings in the 5th Judicial Circuit.

Merritt's temperament is well-suited for the bench. He is a good listener and conveys confidence without being pretentious or overbearing. Perhaps he inherited some of those admirable traits from his father and namesake, who has presided in circuit court in Brooksville since 1998.

Also seeking the Group 31 seat are Jeff Kirk and Sabato "Sal" DeVito.

Kirk, 46, has spent most of his legal career working for government agencies, including Hernando County, where he is employed as an assistant county attorney. He also was a City Council member in Homestead for 14 years.

Like Merritt, Kirk is admirably unassuming and thoughtful, but he lacks Merritt's intensity and elocution.

DeVito's candidacy is indiscernible. He declined to answer questions from the Times' editorial board. But we can tell readers he is a self-employed, 53-year-old attorney in Spring Hill and he ran an aggressive, and unsuccessful, campaign for the state House of Representatives in 2000, losing to David Russell Jr. in District 44. We did not recommend him to voters in that race.

Merritt was one of three finalists for a county court judgeship last year, when Gov. Bush picked Kurt Hitzemann. Now that Merritt has offered himself for public service via the electorate, we recommend voters reward him with their support.