Second of two parts.
Choosing a county judge is a task that leaves most voters flailing in the dark, and the August election is going to require even more scrutiny than usual from voters because of behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
A group of mostly Orlando personal-injury lawyers wants to oust County Judge Terry Neal, one of only three women on the bench in Lake. They say they are just trying to improve the quality of the judiciary in Lake County, but Sunday's column detailed another possible reason — she had begun to question their high fees and had ruled again them.
So, who is their choice to replace the widely respected jurist?
It is Daniel Archer, a Clermont lawyer who owns the Florida Biker Law Group. Archer, 40, is a motorcycling enthusiast who turned his passion into a way to market his services to other bikers. He practices mostly in circuit court in the areas of family and criminal law.
Neal is a jurist with a calm demeanor who has been on the bench since February 2006, handling cases involving claims of less than $5,000, civil traffic matters such as running a stop sign, civil disputes of less than $15,000 and violations of ordinances.
How should voters choose a judge, about whom they probably know nothing? The best guide is to use the same rules that the members of the Judicial Nominating Commission do when considering a lawyer for a judicial appointment.
Much of the decision hinges on the personal integrity of the lawyer. The commission members are to consider standing in the community, sobriety, moral conduct, ethics and commitment to equal justice under the law.
They also look at general mental and physical health, intelligence, knowledge of the law, professional republication and experience in the court where that judge would preside.
And the examination goes further, into more subtle personality traits: patience, decisiveness, impartiality, courtesy, civility, industry, administrative ability, temperament and independence.
Keeping those attributes in mind, here is some background of the two people seeking the $138,020-a-year job:
•Archer, who lists his heritage as Native American, joined the Air Force in September 1992 at the age of 18. His job was munitions system apprentice, and he was deployed to Germany and Turkey before he mustered out in 2000.
Complications from a medical procedure in the service left Archer partly disabled, and he declared on financial disclosure documents an annual income of $19,385 from the Veterans Administration.
Archer earned his bachelor of science degree in education from McMurry University in Texas in 2001 and a bachelor of business administration the following year from the University of Central Oklahoma.
He graduated from Barry University School of Law in Orlando in 2005 and was admitted to the Florida Bar in April 2006.
"I've wanted to be a judge since I was a kid," Archer said. "Out of all the positions that were open, I thought county court would be the best place to get my feet wet, follow my dreams and slowly move up."
Archer said he has been practicing for eight years, and his goal was to seek a judge's seat when he'd been practicing between eight and 10 years.
Those years, however, have not be without struggle for Archer.
In 2008, Archer and a former law partner got a line of credit of $100,000 and borrowed an additional $374,000 against property for their offices in Clermont. In 2011, Bank of America called the line of credit and the pair, who had used $94,000 of it, failed to repay the loan.
The bank declared them in default and also foreclosed on the property, which was sold publicly for $100.
Archer said in a recent interview that the fledgling firm "couldn't maintain the building. With the economic hit everybody took, it hit us as well."
Court documents show that Archer initially accused Bank of America of fraud, then quickly dismissed the claim. He said the foreclosure was just "one of the exposures of doing business" and that he doesn't believe it should be an impediment to his election.
Though Archer said the entire matter was concluded with the sale of the property, documents in the court file state that the settlement covers only the mortgage portion of the debt.
In total, Archer said his net worth is $14,142 in the red, but he pointed out that it will rise as he pays off the nearly $110,000 he still owes in student loans.
Archer and his former partner split after the financial troubles, and he has had a solo practice since 2011. He said he grew long hair and a beard to attract biker clients to his firm. It was either bikers or a practice in the entertainment world, Archer said.
"If you look the part, you're going to have bikers who want to come and work with you," he said.
Archer said it helps that he rides, too — he owns a 2006 Yamaha V Star 1100 and a 1993 Harley-Davidson Electroglide.
The Clermont father of six said he nearly managed to combine his two interests when a local entertainer filmed a proposal for a reality TV show to be called "Archer's Law" at his office. The premise, he said, was "I ride motorcycles, represent the guys in the different clubs who have a desire and fascination to ride motorcycles.
"I represent normal people, too," he joked.
It never panned out, Archer said, and when he decided to run for judge, he shaved his beard and cut his long hair. Photographs of him in biker garb vanished from the web page advertising his services.
Three of Archer's children are grown, and three live with him and his wife, Danielle, in their rural Clermont home. A 12-year-old daughter is a whiz at cupcake baking. His 2-year-old has a personality that "takes on the entire world," and his son, a year, is a "little bundle of joy," Archer said.
•Neal, 59, is a contrast to Archer in a number of ways including her net worth of $1.8 million.
Then there's experience.
Westlaw, a database that tracks litigation, shows that Archer has filed fewer than 300 cases during his career, nearly all of them in circuit court rather than in county court where he wants to be a judge. (The database doesn't track private transactions, such as taking care of wills and deeds and the like.)
The database doesn't track the time before Neal became a judge, but the Lake County Clerk's Office said that she has handled 51,000 cases in county court since she came to the bench. She said she's been reversed by a higher court only eight times.
Neal, who was born in the Philippines while her career Air Force father was stationed there, went to 10 different schools growing up and finally graduated from South Sumter High School in 1972. She attended what now is Lake-Sumter State College and earned her bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Florida.
Neal was a legal assistant for 15 years before she went to law school at the University of Memphis, where she graduated ninth in her class. She was admitted to practice in Florida in 1993.
Neal said she worked her way through high school and college waiting on tables in restaurants, stacking lumber for Georgia Pacific in Cross City and as a announcer for radio station WLBE 790 AM in Leesburg. She's been married for 31 years to John Neal, a retired professor she met when she was a student at Lake-Sumter.
The pair are self-described "history buffs" who love to travel to historical sites involving the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. When they're at home, their hobby is working to keep a beautiful yard around their house. Neal said she's been wanting to see the Grand Canyon, and that's the goal of her next trip. They live with Hootie the Wonder Cat.
"I just enjoy practicing law. I always loved the law and wanted to be a lawyer," Neal said.
She graduated with about $60,000 in loans and said she "worked hard to get those things paid off" in the first six or seven years after she began practicing.
Neal said she takes all cases before her seriously and bases her decisions on the law as applied to the facts "to the best of my ability."
"I believe I treat all people with respect and dignity, but I'm no-nonsense," she said. "I expect people before me to treat the court with dignity and respect."
So, there you have it, dear voter. Early voting starts Aug. 11 and continues every day, including Sunday, through Aug. 23. The election is Aug. 26.
Lritchie@tribune.com. Lauren invites you to send her a friend request on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/laurenonlake.