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2 Vero lawyers on short list for judicial vacancy

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of March 16, 2023)

Vero Beach attorneys Jeff Battista and Bill Long, along with three other Treasure Coast residents, are now on the short list of candidates to replace retired Judge Dan Vaughn on the bench.

Also moved forward by the 19th Circuit Judicial Nominating Committee were Martin County lawyer Brennan Keeler, who represents a Palm Beach County police union, plus two St. Lucie County residents — Lillian Ewen, who serves as a 19th Circuit General Magistrate, and Anastasia Norman, a major crimes prosecutor for State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl’s office in Fort Pierce.

Of the two Vero hopefuls, longtime criminal defense and divorce attorney Battista definitely has more, and more varied, experience.

Battista, 52, has practiced law for 23 years as an assistant state attorney, a private criminal defense attorney and a family law attorney, handling divorces and custody disputes. Battista also serves as a hearing officer for traffic court when local citizens fight a citation. He joined the Grall Law Group after his former law partner Nicole Menz was appointed a county judge. This is Battista’s sixth time in the running for a local judicial seat.

Assistant State Attorney Bill Long serves as attorney in charge of State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl’s Vero office, overseeing all Indian River County criminal cases and prosecuting hundreds of cases in his own felony caseload. Admitted to the Florida Bar in 2009, Long, 40, served as a teaching assistant while attending Stetson University College of Law, but has no civil, family or criminal defense trial experience.

If either Long or Norman is appointed a judge, that would be a great loss to Bakkedahl’s dwindling stable of skilled prosecutors, as the agency has lost its best and brightest to retirement, judicial appointment or other careers.

Nine people applied and were interviewed in Stuart last week by a nine-person panel chaired by Adam Schwartz, a Martin County attorney. A third Vero applicant, prosecutor Robby Stone, was not nominated by the committee.

The five chosen by the panel were then forwarded to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office. As a rule, DeSantis tends to announce political and judicial appointments on Friday afternoons, so he could decide who he wants to serve the people of Florida’s 19th Circuit by the end of this week.

Vaughn, who retired in January after serving 32 years as a county or circuit judge, has been watching the selection process for his replacement closely from home. Though he wouldn’t reveal his top pick on the record, Vaughn did offer some wisdom about what type of man or woman has the potential to be a good judge.

“Some needed qualities are a serious work ethic – it’s not a part-time job. Treat clerks, bailiffs and others with the utmost respect and appreciation. Try to thank them every day. They are not a judge’s servants, although judges treat them that way,” Vaughn said.

“A lot of patience. Never lose your cool or temper in front of people, especially in court. Go back to your office and blow steam if it’s needed. Treat parties with patience and give them your undivided attention. They expect and deserve that.”

Vaughn continued, “Take your job very seriously as every decision, even the small seemingly insignificant ones, will affect someone’s life. But, on the other hand,  don’t take yourself that seriously. Always try to explain your reasons why you made a decision the way you did. Thoroughly explain. The losing side will not like it or agree, but at least if you do a good job explaining, they will understand why you decided the way you did, and will appreciate you explaining it to them and respect you for it.”

He said a good judge should be open-minded when approaching a case.

“But not so open minded your brains fall out,” he added. “Be firm, so people respect you (and fear you a bit), but also fair. Be available at all times to help clerks and parties in case something needs to be fixed quickly, and to sign arrest and search warrants for law enforcement.”