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Three from Vero are hoping to be named to bench

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of March 9, 2023)

Three local Vero lawyers were set to be interviewed this week among a field of nine Treasure Coast residents hoping to gain the governor’s favor, and an appointment to the bench in the 19th Judicial Circuit.

Three of the applicants are men and six are women. One reports assets worth more than $1 million; another is still burdened by nearly $300,000 in student loans.

Longtime beachside criminal defense and divorce attorney Jeff Battista, who joined the Grall Law Group after his former law partner Nicole Menz was appointed to replace Joe Wild as County Judge, has applied for a sixth time to become a judge. In addition to his private practice, Battista serves as a hearing officer for traffic cases.

Battista, 52, was born in Pennsylvania and has lived in Vero Beach for 23 years. He graduated in the top 3 percent of his class from West Virginia University with a degree in accounting, then went on to earn his Juris Doctorate from the University of Florida Levin College of Law with a 2.88 grade point average.

Admitted to the Florida Bar in 2000, Battista joined the State Attorney’s Office here that same year, after working as an intern in Gainesville’s State Attorney’s Office during law school. After four years as a criminal prosecutor, Battista went into private practice.

During the past five years, 93 percent of Battista’s practice has been trial law at the state circuit level. He estimates 84 percent of his cases have dealt with family law, while 5 percent have been criminal cases.

Assistant State Attorney Robert “Robby” Stone Jr., son of former State Attorney Bob Stone and a former partner with his dad in the Stone and Stone law practice, is hoping to join his sister Robyn Stone on the bench. Robby Stone currently serves as a felony prosecutor at the State Attorney’s Fort Pierce office.

Admitted to the Florida Bar in 2014, Stone earned his undergraduate degree from Indian River State College, then went on to Barry University School of Law, where he graduated in the lower fifth of his class.

Stone, 41, reported spending 90 percent of his time over the past five years on criminal defense, with the balance of his caseload being family law.

Assistant State Attorney William “Bill” Long, who during the pandemic took over running the Indian River County operations of State Attorney’s  office, also is seeking the judicial appointment.

Long was born and raised in the St. Petersburg area, relocating to Indian River County in 2009 after graduating from Stetson University College of Law in 2007, where he also served as a teaching assistant. He addressed head-on his regret about graduating law school 86th out of a class of 87 with a 2.26 grade point average.

“It is not lost on this applicant that my law school rank and GPA may raise concern. I stand ready to address any apprehensions about this component of my education. Put simply, I did not apply myself either in the manner I was then capable of, or as I would if placed in that same academic setting today,” Long said.

Long started in the misdemeanor division of the State Attorney’s Office in 2009, moving up to the felonies one year later, and eventually to major crimes in both St. Lucie and Indian River counties. He still manages a large felony caseload along with his administrative duties as “attorney in charge” at the downtown Vero Beach courthouse office.

Six applicants for the job live outside Indian River County, as the 19th Circuit also spans St. Lucie, Martin and Okeechobee counties. Though newly retired Judge Dan Vaughn served much of his 32 years on the bench in Vero Beach, he first served as a St. Lucie County judge as he lives in St. Lucie County.

Donna Eng is the most experienced of the six applicants from outside Indian River County, with nearly 26 years as a trial lawyer. Since being board-certified in appellate work in 2015, Eng has tried more than 250 appeals cases. After graduating from Florida State University with a 3.8 grade point average, she earned her Juris Doctorate from Loyola University School of Law, finishing in the top 20 percent of her class.

Now a senior associate at the Stuart law firm of Mrachek, Fitzgerald, Rose, Konopka, Thomas and Weiss, P.A., Eng has served for three years as an Assistant State Attorney in Broward County, an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Florida in West Palm Beach and as a law clerk in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida.

Maryellen Farrell, 40, a Palm Beach County native, works as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Florida at the West Palm Beach courthouse.

Admitted to the Florida Bar in 2012, Farrell graduated ninth in her class with a 3.67 grade point average at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School at Western Michigan University, then graduated at the top of her University of Florida School of Law class with a 3.57 grade point average.

After law school, Farrell clerked at the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach where Vero cases go if they are appealed.

Brennan Keeler, 41, a Hobe Sound resident and 33-year Floridian, works as general counsel for the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association.

Admitted to the Florida Bar in 2010, he earned his undergraduate degree from Boston University, and graduated in the top third of his class from the Florida State University College of Law.

Keeler’s 13 years of experience includes three years as an assistant state attorney, three years as a staff attorney with the City of Port St. Lucie, six months as a Guardian ad Litem program attorney and three months as assistant county attorney for the Martin County government.

Assistant State Attorney Anastasia Norman serves as a major crimes prosecutor in the State Attorney’s Fort Pierce office. Norman, 40, graduated in the top 10 percent of her class at Stetson University School of Law. She’s tried more than 150 cases since being admitted to the Florida Bar in 2007. Norman submitted an impressive set of recommendation letters from both the Martin and St. Lucie County sheriff’s, as well as from retired Assistant State Attorney Lev Evans.

Assistant State Attorney Rubi Prieto Dial has worked as a criminal prosecutor in Okeechobee County since 2017. Admitted to the Florida Bar in 2016 after working her way through school,  in law offices and at nonprofit organizations, Dial graduated from the Florida Coastal School of Law, the University of Central Florida and Indian River State College.

Dial has practiced criminal trial law exclusively and managed a huge caseload, but the defendants she prosecutes rarely go to trial. Her career record is 17 jury trials, two bench trials and 2,653 cases resolved by plea.

Already a General Magistrate in the 19th Circuit, Lillian Ewen may be the stalking horse of the field. A John Carroll Catholic High School graduate, Ewen earned high marks at Wake Forest University. She graduated from the University of Florida Levin College of Law in 2008 with a 3.0 grade point average, then returned to UF to earn a master’s in business management with a 3.59 grade point average.

While a student, Ewen worked as a Deputy Clerk with the St. Lucie County Clerk of Court, and as an intern with the Rossway Swan Tierney Barry & Oliver firm in Vero Beach. In addition to being a longtime Realtor, Ewen served for 12 years as a staff attorney in the 19th Judicial Circuit Appellate Division.

After the interviews, the Judicial Nominating Committee will select those who they feel are best qualified and forward those applications to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will make the final appointment from the committee’s nominees.