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Groundbreaking new judge in Hernando County

BROOKSVILLE — The phone call came when she was driving home on a late September afternoon, a couple hours south of Tallahassee on Interstate 75.

Heidi Davis pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway, bracing herself for yet another brush-off.

The three previous rejections followed a similar script: a short interview with Gov. Charlie Crist followed by a phone call from one of his staff members later that day informing her that the position was going to someone else.

"I just told him, 'Go ahead and tell me what you gotta tell me,' " Davis recalled. "In my experience, it's the governor who makes the good phone call."

To her surprise, this phone call was one of the good ones.

Crist had selected Davis, a Lake County judicial magistrate since 2004, for the vacancy on the 5th Judicial Circuit bench to replace retiring Hernando County Circuit Judge Jack Springstead.

When Springstead officially steps down on Tuesday, Davis will become the first woman to serve on the bench in Hernando County history.

Davis, 45, of Mount Dora was selected for the open spot over Hernando County lawyers John Napolitano and Steve Toner.

"The governor … selected Heidi because her experience will allow her to serve on the judiciary with honor and integrity," said Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Crist. "Judge Davis' knowledge of the law will help her serve with fairness and common sense in the 5th Judicial Circuit."

The judgeship covers Hernando and Citrus counties, though Davis' position is unique to the circuit because she will be required to spend three days a week in Hernando and two days in Citrus. Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Jr. will assume Springstead's teeming felony docket in Hernando, and Davis will handle misdemeanor and family court cases in both counties.

"Things are still a little up in the air," Davis said. "But I'm the new girl, and I'll be on the bottom of the totem pole."

Circuit Judge Stephen Rushing, who handles the other felony docket in Hernando, said he was eager to welcome Davis to the bench.

"I've heard nothing but great things about her," Rushing said. "She has a very good reputation."

• • •

A single mother of a 16-year-old daughter and a self-described "Air Force brat," Davis is used to making sacrifices to work her way up the chain.

After spending nearly a decade in Indiana, Davis decided to pursue her longtime dream of going to law school and moved to Pinellas County to be closer to her parents, who had settled in the Tampa Bay area more than 20 years ago.

With her then-1-year-old daughter in tow, Davis enrolled in the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport and embarked on the grueling three-year challenge.

"I didn't get to fraternize like some of the other law students," Davis said. "But I was focused on why I was doing this. I knew what I wanted the end result to be. I always joke that I put two of us through law school."

After earning her law degree, Davis worked as a judicial law clerk in Lake County from 1998 to 1999 and from 2001 to 2004. In between, Davis was an associate with the law firm of Alvarez, Sambol, Winthrop and Madison in Orlando.

But it was the clerkships that hardened her resolve to some day become a judge.

"I was just drawn to it right out of law school," she said. "It's the peak of your legal career. Some people want to have their own practice. Others want to be named partner. My pinnacle was being seated on the judiciary."

And that's what kept her in dogged pursuit of a spot in the 5th Circuit — even after the three rejections.

• • •

Davis said the most recent interview process started off much like the others. The judicial candidates were all seated in a waiting room outside the governor's office. They made small talk with each other as they each went into Crist's office for a 15-minute interview.

"At that point, any of you are qualified for the position," Davis said. "So the interviews are more of a chance for (Crist) to see your personality up close. It was extremely relaxed. He really makes you feel at ease."

Crist then wished Davis luck and sent her on the way.

Not too long into her drive back home to Lake County, Davis got the call she had been waiting on for years.

"I'm not a newbie," she said. "I guess I just wore 'em down."

Groundbreaking new judge in Hernando County 11/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 25, 2010 6:50pm]
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