On Aug. 26, voters in the 5th Judicial Circuit (Hernando, Citrus, Sumter, Marion and Lake counties) will choose two judges in non-partisan races. The two judges will be based in Citrus County, but voters in all five counties will have a say. Circuit Court judges serve six-year terms and are paid $145,000 annually. In Group 3, which has three candidates, if no one receives 50 percent of the votes cast plus one vote, the top two finishers will move on to the Nov. 4 general election. Here are the Times' recommendations: Denice Lyn Group 3
Three talented and community-minded attorneys are on the ballot. The edge goes to Denise Lyn.
Lyn, 41, of Hernando, has been a lawyer for more than 10 years, following a five-year stint in the Air Force and a short career in real estate. She has run her own law office since 2001 after working for four years in a prominent law firm in Inverness.
Her practice ranges from general litigation and family law to representing several governmental clients such as the Citrus County Property Appraiser to the Homosassa Special Water District. She previously was the attorney for the city of Inverness.
The judgeship being vacated by Barbara Gurrola in Citrus County handles family court matters. Lyn's experience in this court as an attorney, a longtime volunteer legal advocate for children in dependency proceedings, and as a mediator has prepared her to take this next step.
The major weakness in Lyn's professional background happens to be her opponents' greatest strengths. She has little, if any, experience in criminal court. Both Sandy Hawkins and Michael Lamberti are career prosecutors.
Hawkins, 53, of Belleview, brings an inspiring personal story to her campaign. A farmer's daughter, Hawkins has been a single mother for 19 years and raised six sons. She worked two jobs to put herself through the police academy, the University of Florida and Stetson College of Law.
For 11 years, Hawkins has served as a prosecutor in Marion County, handling thousands of felony cases and more than 100 trials. She has worked on civil matters for police agencies and has experience in shelter hearings and Baker Act cases.
In 2006, Hawkins lost a close race for judge to Edward Scott despite being outspent by more than $225,000. Hawkins attributes her strong performance to the personal connections she made with ordinary citizens along the campaign trail.
Michael Lamberti, 48, of Spring Hill has been in private practice for several months after serving nearly 10 years as a prosecutor in the 5th Circuit. He has also spent a short time with the state Department of Children and Families, and earlier in his career, he was a claims representative for the New York State Insurance Fund handling workers' compensation and disability cases.
Since 1999, Lamberti has volunteered with Teen Court in Hernando County. As a prosecutor, he has handled numerous misdemeanor, juvenile delinquency and adult felony cases.
Both Hawkins and Lamberti would bring a prosecutor's perspective to the bench along with their varied life experiences. Both have worked hard to get to this point in their professional careers and have the training and skills to serve the citizens of the 5th Circuit well.
All three candidates have the necessary temperament for the bench and similar philosophies on sentencing guidelines, the value of diversion programs such as Teen Court and Drug Court, and the need for a judge to streamline the court's docket for maximum efficiency.
In the Group 3 race, the Times recommends Denice Lyn, who gets a slight edge through her extensive family court and governmental experience and her numerous civic involvements.
Richard "Ric" Howard Group 11
Richard "Ric'' Howard has handled thousands of cases and presided over hundreds of trials since being appointed the 5th Circuit Court bench by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2000. Most of these proceedings have been routine, but two cases have brought widespread criticism and showcased starkly different aspects of his personality and judgment.
The 2007 trial of John Couey for the abduction and murder of Jessica Lunsford thrust Howard into a national spotlight. By all accounts, he handled this emotionally charged trial fairly and efficiently.
But there is another case that speaks louder about Howard's judicial temperament. When considered with other similar cases, it raises concerns the judge may be biased against young male defendants, is too prideful to reconsider the fairness of his rulings, and is blind to the devastating impacts of his decisions.
William Thornton was 17 in 2004 when he skidded through a stop sign on a poorly lit road one night in Citrus County, colliding with an SUV whose occupants were not wearing seat belts and who had drugs and alcohol in the vehicle. The young man and woman in the SUV were ejected and killed; Thornton was seriously injured.
On the advice of a distracted public defender, Thornton went before Howard without benefit of an accident investigation or trial and made an open plea to two counts of vehicular homicide. The state recommended house arrest or time in a juvenile facility for Thornton, who had no prior record.
After noting he had sentenced Thornton's father to 30 years in prison for an unrelated offense, Howard gave William Thornton the maximum sentence allowed: 30 years in an adult prison.
This travesty of justice has generated headlines and appeals for mercy or at least a reconsideration for nearly three years. Just last week, an appellate court denied Thornton's latest effort to have Howard removed as judge in any rehearing of the case.
None of this would be necessary had Howard shown compassion, fairness or understanding from the outset. Instead, he issued a vindictive punishment far beyond what the circumstances warranted. Citing the Canons of Judicial Ethics, Howard has declined to publicly comment on the Thornton case.
Were this an aberration, Howard might have a point in saying this one case should not define his 30-year career in public service. But taken with other instances, such as dealing out maximum terms in teen sex cases and sending a bipolar teenager, Adam Bollenback, to prison for 10 years for stealing beer from a neighbor's garage, a very troubling pattern emerges.
Howard strenuously denies a charge made by, among others, his opponent in the race, Inverness attorney Rhonda Portwood, that he is biased. He notes that his rulings have all been upheld on appeal and says that he has presided over hundreds of cases involving young men without controversy.
If he is to be judged by one case, Howard said, make it the Couey trial. It had a greater impact to the citizens of Florida, he said, and he alone among Citrus County judges was able to take it on as the county's only death penalty-qualified judge.
For voters to dismiss him, however, they would need an experienced alternative. While well-meaning, Portwood simply is not ready to become a felony court judge.
Portwood, 45, of Inverness, became a lawyer in 2002 after running a beauty salon in Perry, Fla., for 12 years. She worked as a prosecutor for seven months in 2003 before joining an Inverness law firm. She has run her own law office for nearly four years handling cases in family court, where she is also a mediator and attorney ad litem for children.
The highlight of Portwood's legal career came in 2007 when she successfully argued a case before the Florida Supreme Court on behalf of a man who had lost his parental rights during an adoption proceeding.
Portwood and her husband have a blended family that includes 15 children ages 13 to 34. She cites her life experiences as helping prepare her to be a judge.
Portwood acknowledges she got into this race more by default (she did not want to run against Sandy Hawkins for the open judgeship) and did not know much about Howard. She has since focused her campaign on his harsh sentences.
Howard, 55, of Brooksville, married and the father of three grown daughters, has been a prosecutor, defense attorney and judge in Florida for 30 years. He has managed government and private law offices and helped start a lawyer mentoring program in Brooksville.
The public is left hoping that Howard has learned from the biting community criticism. Steps such as his helping to launch a mental health court in Citrus County indicate that he may be listening.
With no viable alternative, the Times recommends Ric Howard in the Group 11 race.