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From defense attorney to judge: Stephen Toner digs in

Stephen Toner focused on civil law his first year on the 5th Judicial Circuit. In January, he took over half of the county’s felony criminal cases.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Stephen Toner focused on civil law his first year on the 5th Judicial Circuit. In January, he took over half of the county’s felony criminal cases.

BROOKSVILLE — Circuit Judge Stephen E. Toner Jr. peered at the defendant through wire glasses and told him to pay attention.

After nearly four hours of testimony, it was time for Toner to explain why he was about to send the 19-year-old man with schizophrenia to prison for much of his adult life.

As family members and reporters watched from the gallery of Courtroom E, Toner told Jesse Daily that the decision had not been an easy one. The judge said he had considered Daily's age and his mental health diagnosis. He acknowledged that the state prison system offers relatively limited mental health treatment. But he told the gaunt, lanky teen that there had to be a steep consequence for fatally stabbing his mother's boyfriend.

"You'll receive some help, and hopefully at the other end you'll be a better person for it," Toner said before announcing his ruling: 30 years in prison, five fewer than the cap set by a plea agreement.

Toner's assignment during his first year on the bench had him presiding over a variety of cases. He dissolved marriages, created custody plans for divorcing parents, granted domestic violence injunctions and sorted out foreclosures.

Now Toner's profile is on the rise.

In January, the former criminal defense attorney with deep roots in Hernando County took over half of the county's felony criminal cases. The docket previously had been handled by Circuit Judge Anthony Tatti, who transferred to Marion County. Daily's sentencing marked Toner's first high-profile case and longest sentence he has levied so far.

"It's an incredible responsibility," Toner, 47, said in an interview. "There are aspects of my job that are not pleasant, but they need to be done, and I'm absolutely ecstatic about having the opportunity to serve in this capacity."

• • •

A television barrister named Perry Mason left an impression on Toner as he grew up in Camden, N.J.

"He was respected. He was ethical," Toner said. "That was important to me."

Toner's father, Stephen Sr., worked as a beat cop in Philadelphia and, later, as a private investigator. His mother was a teacher.

Toner got his law degree from Stetson University, and an internship with the Public Defender's Office in Clearwater cemented a desire to practice criminal law. He sought positions as a prosecutor and public defender, and Public Defender Skip Babb gave Toner a job in Brooksville in 1991.

His demeanor caught the attention of his future wife, who was an assistant public defender in the same office.

"In the Public Defender's Office, sometimes the people you represent are difficult, and yet he handled them with respect and dignity," Gena Toner said.

Toner moved in 1994 to the 13th Circuit Public Defender's Office in Hillsborough, where he spent just a few months as head of a felony division before Babb called and asked him to run his Citrus County office.

Gena Toner started her own firm, and in 1998 her husband joined her. His criminal experience complemented her burgeoning family law practice. They had a daughter, then a son, now 15 and 14.

Toner practiced criminal defense law in Hernando and Citrus for the next 14 years. He got his board certification in criminal law from the Florida Bar in 2002 — a distinction earned by a tiny fraction of attorneys — and garnered a reputation for meticulous preparation and knowledge of the law, said Citrus County Circuit Judge Richard Howard, who took the bench in 2001 and presided over many of Toner's cases.

"He was very classy, confident and yet not arrogant," Howard said.

People told Toner he had the temperament to make a good judge. He applied for four appointed judge posts in Hernando, and each time the Judicial Nominating Commission selected him as a finalist. He won the seat left vacant by retiring Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr.; no one else filed to run in the election.

"I think that's a testament to the level of respect that other attorneys have for him," said Howard, a fellow Eagle Scout who swore in Toner in January 2013.

• • •

Toner's assignment in his first year was typical for so-called baby judges who need to develop experience across the broad spectrum of law. Civil cases don't draw news crews but can be heart-rending for the parties involved.

Deciding how to divvy up child time between divorcing parents was especially difficult, he said.

"In family law, one of the overarching things is the best interest of the children," Toner said. "That weighed a lot on me. The people here in this county and in our circuit want a judge who lives in the real world, who understands their feelings and can see things from their perspective, and that can be a challenge."

Attorneys who have appeared in front of Toner say he clearly did his homework on each case and excels at explaining his decisions to attorneys and their clients.

"Very few do it as in-depth and as well as Judge Toner," said private attorney (and Hernando School Board member) Matt Foreman, who handles family law cases. "I think he understands the impacts his rulings have on people. He doesn't take it lightly."

Now Toner will be hearing the cases and deciding the fates of defendants ranging from addicts caught with a handful of pain pills to convicted murderers.

He brings personal experience as a victim who waited for justice. In 2010, a driver struck his father in Lake County and left the scene. Stephen Sr., 69, died. The driver was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors get apprehensive when a new judge takes the felony docket. Some judges develop a reputation for being friendlier to prosecutors or defense attorneys. Toner said his years of experience as an advocate for defendants won't sway him on the bench.

"I try to be fair based on all the relevant information presented to me," he said. "More information means I can make a better judgment. I've made that clear to attorneys from the beginning.

"My goal," he said, "is to be able to leave the courthouse every day and say to myself, I did the very best I could for the citizens, and I made the right decision based on the information I had."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

From defense attorney to judge: Stephen Toner digs in 02/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 6:44pm]

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