For circuit judge: Scott and Merritt

A Times Editorial
Published October 20, 2006

Voters in the 5th Judicial Circuit will choose two new judges for the sprawling circuit that includes Hernando, Citrus, Lake, Sumter and Marion counties. 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.

In the Sept. 5 elections, two races wound up in runoffs when the leading candidate did not receive 50 percent, plus one, of the vote total. The top two finishers in each race now face each other in the Nov. 7 general election.

Group 29

Edward Scott has spent his entire career in the law, honing his skills as a street cop, a deputy, a prosecutor, a public defender and then a private attorney. There is precious little, if anything at all, dealing with the legal system he has not experienced first-hand.

This comprehensive training and a lifetime of learning has prepared the 55-year-old Ocala attorney to take the next professional step, to the Circuit Court bench.

Scott won 45 percent of the votes in the Sept. 5 race, while Sandy Hawkins collected 36 percent. Peyton Hyslop finished third with 19 percent.

Quiet and thoughtful, Scott brings a measured approach and respect for the legal system and for the people whose lives are impacted by the law. He pledges that anyone who appears in his court will know that they were treated with dignity and respect, no matter what the outcome.

It is his varied and lengthy education and professional experience, however, that makes him the best qualified person in the Group 29 race.

His opponent, Assistant State Attorney Sandy Hawkins, brings a different kind of experience to her candidacy. As a prosecutor, she is involved in the real day-to-day world of the courthouse. She has a strong feel for the pulse of the community after handling hundreds of misdemeanor and felony cases over the last nine years.

Hawkins' personal life is also an inspiration. Raised in the Florida countryside, she worked hard and put herself through the University of Florida and then Stetson College of Law. As a single mother, she has raised six sons while working at a very stressful position.

Hawkins is very believable when she says that as a judge, she will be able to relate to the people who come before her. Her compassion and work ethic are unquestioned.

If she does not succeed in this race, Hawkins should continue to seek a seat on the bench because the legal system can never have enough high-achievers who have persevered despite long odds.

She must also broaden her legal experience beyond the criminal court side. Scott's career reflects a determination to succeed in all aspects of the system, a goal that he has accomplished.

The Times recommends that voters elect Edward Scott to the Group 29 Circuit Court bench.

Group 31

After a three-way race in the September Primary Election for the Group 31 judgeship in the 5th Judicial Circuit, Daniel B. Merritt Jr. fell seven-tenths of a percentage point short of winning outright the 50-percent-plus-one margin for a win. He bested challengers Jeff Kirk, who garnered 33 percent of the vote for the runoff spot, and Sabato "Sal" DeVito, whose 17 percent eliminated him from this race.

The majority of voters picked the best candidate the first time around, and we encourage them to back Merritt again.

Merritt's 16 years of experience as a private attorney have afforded him the opportunity to represent a diverse group of people. He has specialized in family, probate, business and real estate law. That wide-ranging experience has given him the tools needed to rule from the bench with practical perspective. His deep roots in his native Hernando County, in which he would mainly serve, augment his candidacy positively.

Merritt was one of the Judicial Nominating Committee's choices for a Hernando County judgeship in 2005, but he failed to earn the nod from Gov. Jeb Bush. Still, that distinctive acknowledgement of his background strengthens Merritt's candidacy in this race against Kirk, whose experience as an assistant Hernando County attorney and a city councilman in Homestead, while truly admirable, cannot overcome Merritt's proficiency as an advocate for everyday litigants.

Merritt possesses the legal temperament and credentials to serve the people of the 5th Judicial Circuit. Although we very much respect the qualifications of his opponent, we recommend Merritt in this contest.