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Two women vie for seat on 5th Circuit Court bench

Two area attorneys vying for a seat on the circuit bench go head-to-head this November after no winner emerged from the three-way contest in August.

Marion County prosecutor Sandy Hawkins and Inverness attorney Denise Lyn finished first and second, respectively, in the primary election.

For Hawkins, this extra-innings campaign is not a new experience. She narrowly lost a runoff for a judicial seat in 2006.

In that race, her opponent grossly outspent her meager campaign. And this time her opponent is again flush with cash.

Lyn collected about $85,000 through Sept. 26, including a $45,000 personal loan, compared with the approximately $11,000 Hawkins raised.

One of them will replace retiring Circuit Judge Barbara Gurrola of Citrus County, who was elected in 1996.

Gurrola's successor would likely assume her mixed docket of family, juvenile and other civil cases in Citrus, though judicial assignments are not finalized until after the election.

Here's a look at the attorneys' backgrounds, including excerpts from previous interviews:

• • •

Hawkins entered the law profession late in life. She was 42 when she graduated from the Stetson University College of Law in 1997.

Now 53, she spent her entire career with the State Attorney's Office in Ocala, handling domestic violence cases in criminal and civil court before moving to the felony criminal docket before Circuit Judge Hale Stancil.

She describes herself as a sugar cane farmer's daughter who raised six boys, starting when she was 17. She attended the police academy, but another pregnancy kept her from taking law enforcement jobs. She worked two jobs as a single mother to put herself through the University of Florida and then law school.

Why do you think you are the best candidate?

"I think my life experiences, my legal experiences, my personality and demeanor make me a good candidate for a judge. If a person wants a judge who will be hardworking, organized, who has thousands of hours of courtroom experience … who will listen to both sides of the argument, most importantly, treat both parties with respect, (and) render a fair and impartial decision, then they will vote for me."

What about your life experiences would you bring to the bench?

"I can tell you I'm hardworking. I'm the daughter of a farmer, I know what hard work is. I've raised six boys, the last 19 years as a single, working mother. … There's a lot of years of struggling. I can tell you, it's a humbling experience to stand in a food stamp line — something that I didn't want to do but something I had to do to keep my family together many years ago. These life experiences have given me an outlook."

This seat will likely handle civil matters. What civil experience do you hold?

"I have been in civil courts. I did all the forfeiture hearings for the Marion County Sheriff's Office and Ocala Police Department. I know what civil procedure is, and I know what is expected in civil court. I have been in the domestic violence arena quite a bit. Divorces — I've been through two … so I know what's involved there. … It's how hardworking you are, how up on the law you are and how informed you are" that matters.

• • •

Lyn, 41, also came to the legal profession later in life after stints in the military and the real estate business.

She enlisted in the Air Force in 1985 to help pay for college, fixing planes for several years. She finished her tenure at Hurlburt Field in the Panhandle, attended college and began selling real estate in nearby Navarre.

An inspirational experience in court led her to law school at the University of Florida. After graduation, she joined an Inverness law firm and in 2001 opened her own private practice, taking on general civil cases ranging from family law to land use regulation. In 2004, Lyn was elected as the 5th Circuit's representative on the Florida Bar's 52-member governing body.

Why do you think you are the best candidate?

"For me, I believe a judge holds a very important position within our government and within our society. I have taken very decisive steps throughout my legal career to give myself a diverse, broad-based legal background so one day I could assume the role of judge. I believe a judge is the individual who people go to to resolve their disputes, and I think I have the skills and the training to be able to effectively help."

What about your life experiences would you bring to the bench?

"I have really tried to make sure I really understand what's expected of the position. … (In these tight budget times) I think the judges are going to have to operate very lean. … We are going to have to have someone who understands what it is like to run a business, someone who understands what it's like to tighten the belt straps. I have learned within my business how to cut back when I had to."

This seat will likely handle civil matters. What civil experience do you hold?

This seat will be "dealing with things from eminent domain and condemnation — very highly complex issues — my background is specific to that. And dependency actions, I have been involved in since the beginning (of my career). … I have handled a large gamut of matters. I also believe I have the interpersonal skills, the communication skills to be open to what is being presented (and) certainly to be patient and to allow parties a fair and full opportunity to present their cases."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

>>ABOUT THE CANDIDATES

Sandy Hawkins Denise Lyn

Age: 53

Personal: Lives in Belleview, born in Palm Beach County. As a single mother, worked various jobs while attending school.

Education: Police academy; bachelor's from the University of Florida; law degree from Stetson University in 1997 at age 42.

Experience: Assistant state attorney in the 5th Judicial Circuit for past 11 years, working domestic and felony cases. Lost judicial election in 2006, finishing with 49 percent of the vote in a runoff.

Age: 41

Personal: Lives in Inverness. Born in Somerville, N.J., moved to Florida 22 years ago, Citrus County 11 years ago.

Education: Served in the Air Force for five years after high school; worked in real estate sales and kept the job while earning a bachelor's in business administration from Troy University; law degree from the University of Florida in 1997.

Experience: Private law firm in Inverness before opening her own practice in 2001. Also represented a few governmental entities in Citrus County.

Two women vie for seat on 5th Circuit Court bench 10/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 7:56pm]

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