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5th Circuit chief judge, public defender stepping down as 2012 qualifying deadline passes

BROOKSVILLE — After six years as chief judge of the 5th Judicial Circuit and 14 years on the bench, Daniel Merritt Sr. will step down when his term ends in January.

Howard "Skip'' Babb will also retire from the public defender's job he has held since 1980.

Friday was the deadline for candidates for judge, state attorney and public defender to qualify for the 2012 election ballot.

Merritt's circuit judge seat will be filled by Spring Hill lawyer Stephen Toner Jr., the only person who qualified for the seat by the deadline. Toner has sought judicial appointments several times in recent years.

He could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

Without opposition, Brad King will serve another four-year term as state attorney. He first won the job in 1988. Before that, King served as a prosecutor.

Merritt could not be reached for comment after Friday's filing deadline He turned 70 earlier this year, and the state Constitution forbids circuit judges from serving after that age.

Merritt, who was born and raised in Brooksville, graduated from the University of Florida's law school in 1967 and returned to Brooksville, where he practiced law for 30 years before becoming a judge. In 2006, he became chief judge, the first in recent memory from Hernando County in a circuit dominated by Lake and Marion counties. The circuit also includes Citrus and Sumter counties.

Babb is also a native Floridian and has spent the majority of his life in Lake County, working for a time as a private attorney, then starting his career in public service as an assistant state attorney in Sumter County in 1975.

He said Friday he was looking forward to his retirement and noted that his years working with the training committee and serving as president for the Florida Public Defender Association were especially rewarding.

Babb vowed to work with whoever is elected to the public defender's job "to try to make it as smooth a transition as possible.''

Two attorneys in the circuit will face one another to fill the post: Mike Graves of Tavares and Bo Samargya of Inverness.

Samargya said his varied background — working for public defenders and state attorneys as well as in the private sector and as a conflict counsel, providing representation for indigent clients — has uniquely qualified him for the job.

"I've been doing criminal defense work for a long time,'' he said.

Graves could not be reached for comment.

Facing no opposition and therefore winning six-year terms as circuit judges in Hernando County are: Merritt's son, Daniel Merritt Jr.; Heidi Davis; and Anthony Tatti.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

5th Circuit chief judge, public defender stepping down as 2012 qualifying deadline passes 04/20/12 [Last modified: Friday, April 20, 2012 8:02pm]

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