Citrus County School Board member Patricia Vitter, attorney Fred Ohlinger and Marion County Judge Hale Stancil still are in the running to replace William Edwards on the Circuit Court bench.
The Fifth Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission voted Monday to recommend the three to Gov. Lawton Chiles after interviewing them and four other candidates.
Chiles has 60 days from the time he receives the nominating commission's recommendations to make a decision. Williams plans on retiring Aug. 31. The appointed judge will have to stand for election next year.
The interviews were public, but the panel members deliberated privately and released no details about how they had made their decisions.
The four candidates who did not make the panel's final cut were Jim Dysart, an Inverness-based assistant state attorney; Stephen Lee, a Marion County lawyer; Donald Scaglione, a Hernando County-based assistant state attorney; and Elizabeth Zettler, a Williston lawyer.
John McKeever, chairman of the nominating commission for the Fifth Judicial Circuit, said background checks had been done on all the candidates. The checks included credit reports and checks with the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Bar. The reports on Ohlinger, Stancil and Vitter will be sent to the governor.
The nine-member panel, which includes prominent Inverness lawyer Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick, chose Vitter despite strong objections from a community activist.
Natalie Baarsma, a Floral City resident who is a staunch supporter of County Judge Gary Graham, had suggested that Vitter is too tied into the so-called "good old boy" network that has favored Graham's removal from the bench.
Baarsma also brought to the commission's attention a vote Vitter cast while a member of the board of trustees for Central Florida Community College several years ago. While she was dating the college's president, William Campion, Vitter voted to give him a pay raise.
"If you submit Patricia Vitter's name to the governor, then you are handing him a Zoe Baird or Kimba (Wood) whose candidacy is going to blow up in his face, particularly since their transgressions pale in comparison to those committed by Vitter," Baarsma told the commission, referring to two failed hopefuls for the U.S. attorney general position.
"If despite a sea of acceptable candidates for circuit judge .
. you still submit Patricia Vitter's name to the governor, then you will drive the people of Citrus County to an inevitable conclusion: The fix is in, and you are part of it."
Panel member Tom Hogan, a Brooksville lawyer, asked Vitter to respond to Baarsma's charges.
Vitter said the college board of trustees had unanimously voted on the pay raise for Campion. "My personal situation didn't enter into it at all," she said, noting she thought the raise was appropriate given that enrollment had increased and the college's reputation had improved considerably under Campion.
If selected by Chiles, Vitter will have to resign from the School Board with one year remaining in her term.
The candidates were asked many of the same questions by members of the Judicial Nominating Commission. The panel wanted to know if the candidates could impose the death penalty, what they thought about mediation programs, their opinions on sentencing guidelines and what special skills they would bring to the bench.
The answers were similar, with candidates saying they could impose capital punishment, that they support some mediation efforts and that there are problems with sentencing guidelines.
Fitzpatrick asked the candidates how they would handle tardy lawyers and if they would leave the courthouse early on Fridays if their court calendars were clear.
Vitter was the only candidate to say she would start proceedings even if lawyers from both sides weren't present. Several, however, said that depending on the nature of the proceedings, they may consider starting without both sets of counsel.
All candidates pledged to be readily available to handle emergency hearings.
Vitter, 41, has been a lawyer for 17 years and has practiced in Inverness since 1979. She is a certified family and circuit mediator. The majority of her clients are individuals who need help with domestic difficulties, misdemeanors, real estate or probate matters. She also represents several small businesses.
She is a member of the board of directors of Barnett Bank of the Suncoast, N.A.
Ohlinger, 46, has been in private practice for most of his career, but served as an assistant state attorney in Inverness from 1986 to 1989. In his interview, he stressed his breadth of experience and understanding of the Citrus County courts.
Stancil, 47, has been a county court judge in Marion since 1983. He was re-elected without opposition in 1986 and 1990. Before becoming a judge, he spent several years in private practice and in the public defender's office.
Because Graham has not been allowed to handle criminal matters since last year, Stancil occasionally has filled in on the Citrus County court bench.
Stancil's candidacy was supported by three Ocala lawyers who told the nominating panel that the judge has integrity, the appropriate judicial demeanor and a strong work ethic.
He and Ohlinger also were supported by two people who have been at odds over Graham: Baarsma and Clark Stillwell, an Inverness lawyer and past president of the Citrus County Bar Association.