A 5th Judicial Circuit Court seat on the Aug. 26 ballot has drawn four candidates. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will face each other in November. This is a nonpartisan office with a six-year term. Circuit judges hear felony cases, probate and family law issues as well as civil disputes involving damages in excess of $15,000, but the seat currently is assigned the family law docket and that is not expected to change after the election. The Group 3 seat is based in Inverness, but the position is elected by voters in Hernando, Citrus and the three other counties in the sprawling judicial district.
It is rare for an incumbent judge to draw an opponent, but challengers to Group 3 Judge Sandy Kautz emerged after a Judicial Qualifications Commission investigation recommended she be publicly reprimanded by the Florida Supreme Court for inappropriate behavior. The Supreme Court has not acted on the recommendation, but Kautz signed a document admitting wrongdoing and in an interview acknowledged "I made a mistake.''
She had been accused of standing beside her sister and advocating on her behalf during her sibling's first appearance in a domestic violence case. The JQC concluded the judge's conduct was misguided, but lacked ill intent. The agency also was critical of Kautz's judicial performance for expressing anger and frustration during court, and giving the impression she did not know or did not apply the law correctly in some rulings.
Kautz, 59, won the seat in 2008 after serving 11 years as an assistant state attorney. She talks passionately about her role in assisting children over the past six years hearing family law cases, but the poor judgment she confirmed to the JQC should give voters pause about allowing her to serve a second term in a judicial capacity.
Mary Hatcher, 53, is the most experienced of the challengers, having practiced law for 25 years. She started her own Bushnell-based practice in 1999 and said 70 percent of her case load now is in family law. Notably, her resume includes an important distinction from the rest of the field — she spent six years as a senior attorney for the Florida Department of Children and Families, helping strengthen her advocacy for children's interests. Likewise, her early career included serving as the staff attorney for the 6th Circuit Court judges in Dade City, giving her behind-the-scenes experience researching judicial rulings.
Bo Samargya, 47, began practicing law 20 years ago and now is a sole practitioner in Ocala where about half his practice is related to criminal defense work. He has run previously for Citrus County judge and for 5th Judicial Circuit public defender. Samargya is both a former prosecutor and former assistant public defender and he would be a solid choice if the judicial seat handled the criminal docket rather than family law where his experience is not as robust.
Denise Dymond Lyn, 47, of Inverness, is making her third run for the circuit bench, having lost in 2008 and 2010. She's been a lawyer since 1997 and running her own firm since 2001. She is or has been a special magistrate for the value adjustment boards in six counties and on code enforcement issues for three municipalities. That work gives her valuable experience sitting in a judicial role, and her pro bono work has included representing children in dependency cases. However, most of her practice has focused on government and land use issues. Neither she nor Samargya can match Hatcher's family law experience.
The Tampa Bay Times recommends Mary Hatcher for the Group 3 seat in the 5th Judicial Circuit Court.