BROOKSVILLE — The man who would be judge once kept a mean backbeat.
Perched behind a sparkling red Ludwig drum set, Daniel B. Merritt Sr. drove the rhythm section for the Imperial Rockers. It was the late 1950s, and the five-piece band played Elvis tunes and other covers throughout Central Florida. Merritt got to showcase his chops during a drum solo on a rockified version of When the Saints Go Marching In.
He earned a music scholarship and dreamed of a career as a professional musician.
"Then," Merritt recalled, "reality began to set in."
Married with a son while still an undergraduate, Merritt went to Plan B. Instead of going on tour to leave groupies in his wake, he earned a law degree and returned to Brooksville.
Now Merritt is about to retire after 14 years as a circuit judge. The law requires judges to step down when they turn 70. His last day is Monday.
He was the first chief judge from Hernando in the five-county 5th Judicial Circuit, and earned praise as a fair, hard-working judge who helped guide the county and circuit through a period of explosive growth and deep recession.
Ask him if wants to retire and Merritt does something defendants who stand before him rarely get to see: He laughs. He has at least five years left in him, he says.
Ask him if it's difficult to leave and he does not hesitate.
"Of course," he said. "This has been my life's work."
• • •
Merritt was born in Eustis and raised in Brooksville by his father, Daniel, and stepmother, Evelyn, who owned a Standard Oil filling station at the corner of U.S. 98 and State Road 50.
Merritt attended Brooksville Elementary and started playing drums in the Hernando High School marching band while still in the fifth grade. The Imperial Rockers played at the local Moose Lodge and American Legion on the weekends.
Merritt graduated in 1960 and headed to McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La. He and his first wife, Judy, had their first child while Merritt was a sophomore.
He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in business administration, the first member of his family to graduate from college.
Brooksville attorney Richard McGee encouraged Merritt to go to law school and guaranteed him a job when he graduated.
"I always had an interest in the law but I wasn't sure I could pull it off," Merritt said.
With limited funds and a $75 application fee for each law school application, Merritt chose just one. He graduated from the University of Florida College of Law in 1967, came back to Brooksville and worked with McGee specializing in general practice, eventually becoming a partner.
"Law school teaches you how to research the law," Merritt would say later. "Those early years with Richard taught me how to practice law."
In 1968, at the age of 26, Merritt got a taste of the bench when he was appointed to serve as a part-time municipal law judge for the city of Brooksville. The youngest judge in the state for a while, Merritt heard DUI, traffic and misdemeanor cases during five years in the post.
"I think anybody who practices law and has any degree of success thinks at some point about becoming a judge," he said.
Merritt spent about three decades in private practice, specializing for many years in marital and family law.
"Dan was an excellent attorney," said Bill Eppley, a former law partner of Merritt's who still practices in Brooksville. "He was very meticulous and always well prepared."
The Merritts later had two daughters, Stacey and Shelley. Judy died of leukemia in 1992.
Daniel "Tiger" Merritt Jr. practiced law with his father for about for about eight years and was elected in 2006 to a circuit judge post in Hernando.
Merritt was especially proud because he advised his son years earlier to choose a career he thought he would enjoy, and the younger Merritt picked a path that led to a leather chair behind a bench in the same courthouse.
"I looked up to him and respected him," his son said. "He never pushed me into that."
In 1997, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles tapped the elder Merritt for a newly created judgeship in the 5th Circuit comprised of Hernando, Citrus, Lake, Sumter and Marion counties. Merritt was elected three years later and then re-elected.
As part of his first assignment, Merritt heard a range of civil and criminal cases in Citrus, Hernando and Sumter. The tri-county docket was a tough assignment, recalled Circuit Judge Patricia Thomas, the senior judge in Citrus County and Merritt's former mentor.
"He did his job and never once complained," Thomas said. "I always had the greatest amount of respect for him for the way he handled that docket."
Among attorneys, Merritt earned a reputation as a judge who came prepared and weighed every decision carefully.
"He's a very fair judge, always has been," said Stephen Toner Jr., the Weeki Wachee attorney appointed to fill the vacancy left by Merritt's retirement. "He sets an example for all the judges in the circuit."
• • •
Merritt was appointed Hernando's administrative judge in 2005. The job includes the oversight of court administration staff, submitting a budget to the circuit's chief judge, and acting as a liaison with the County Commission.
About two years later, his fellow judges elected him as the circuit's chief judge, a post he has held while still hearing a full load of cases.
His election was a coup for Hernando, a smaller county to big brothers Marion and Lake.
Some have called the three smaller counties the stepchildren of the circuit when it came to landing resources.
"Let's just say Hernando, Sumter and Citrus were at the bottom of the pecking order," Merritt said. "It was skewed a little bit. I think all that's resolved."
The circuit as a whole needs seven new judges, according to the Florida Supreme Court, but no money has been set aside to pay for them.
And Hernando is short of court space, Merritt has repeatedly told county commissioners. At one point he convinced them to contribute millions for a new judicial center, but they have since spent their share.
"It's someone else's turn to carry the ball now," he said. "Not that I might not have an opinion as a private citizen when it comes up."
• • •
In early 2010, an unemployed roofer named John Kalisz fatally shot his sister and her employee and severely injured two more women, including his pregnant niece. A jury recommended the death penalty, and Merritt agreed, the only time in his career he sentenced someone to death.
He acknowledged the death case came with "more stress, more reflection, and more soul-searching."
Asked to recall other cases that will stick with him, Merritt declined. Decisions he made in cases like parental custody disputes, for example, never made news.
"But to the people involved," he said, "it's certainly the most important case they've ever had."
Merritt doesn't intend to go far. He'll keep working on his cattle ranch north of Brooksville. He and Debbie, whom he married in 1994, have 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Merritt might return to help out as a part-time judge on special assignment. State law requires him to take a year off before he can be paid, but he hasn't ruled out coming back before then to volunteer.
His advice for incoming judges: "Put your head down, do your job, learn as much as you can, then talk to somebody about improving things once you've earned your spurs."
The red drum set, by the way, is still in the attic.
Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.