Live Oak —
Blair Payne has been elected to serve as the public defender for the Third Judicial Circuit, replacing Dennis Roberts who left office for retirement. Payne served as an assistant to Roberts for the past two years prior to running for the office.
“I tried to talk Dennis into staying four more years,” Payne said. “Dennis has been absolutely great to work for, and we’ll miss him. But when he announced his retirement, I started getting calls from different people encouraging me to run (for public defender). The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea.”
Payne walked into the election unopposed and with the blessings of Roberts.
“I’m leaving the office in good hands,” Roberts said. “I am extremely pleased that an attorney of that quality will be taking over the office.”
Since Payne’s early teenage years, the thoughts of being an attorney flickered off and on. Payne recalls moments inside the Hamilton County Courtroom that “sparked” his interest.
“I remember sitting through a trial or two inside that courtroom thinking, ‘Man, I would love to be one of those guys,’” Payne said. “You could say that sparked me.”
Payne grew up in the city limits of Jasper and attended Hamilton County High School. Coming from a rich heritage of educators, Payne became “the odd ball” by choosing to go to law school instead of teaching.
His path to law school began after receiving his diploma in 1973. Payne enrolled at North Florida Junior College (currently North Florida Community College) and graduated two years later with an associate degree. He then transferred to Valdosta State in Valdosta, Ga. and walked across the stage in 1978, receiving a Bachelor of Science in criminal Justice.
Payne took some time off away from the books and went to work at Occidental Chemical Corp., now Potash Corp., in White Springs.
“It didn’t take me long to figure out that’s not where I belonged,” Payne laughed. About a year later, Payne was packing his bags and moving to St. Petersburg to attend Stetson University’s School of Law.
In June of 1979, Payne became an official student at Stetson. From there, he worked continually until his degree was complete in December of 1981. While working to obtain a Juris Doctorate, Payne realized the big city life was not for him.
“During my last summer in law school, I did summer clerkship at a law firm in Orlando. I told God that if he ever got me out of Orlando, that I probably wouldn’t come back, and if I did, it wouldn’t be for a long time,” said Payne. “It was a very long time before I went back,” he laughed.
Straight out of law school, Payne went to work for Darby, Peele, Page and Bowdoin in Lake City. Payne remained with the firm for 26 years prior to accepting the position with the public defender’s office as an assistant.
“In a five minute conversation with Dennis, I knew I wanted to work for him and he knew that he wanted me to work for him,” Payne said. “I felt like this would be a great opportunity for me and I’m very grateful for Dennis and all he has done for the office.”
“I’m blessed to have been left a great staff,” he continued. “Dennis did a great job filling the staff and creating a great culture in the office.”
In anticipation of the future, Payne said he doesn’t see major changes coming.
“I was hoping Lee (Peters Jr.) would stay, but I totally understand him wanting to retire, so I had to find a replacement for him,” Payne said of the division chief who retired after 24 years. “Replacing Lee was no easy task. He is such a great person and a great attorney.”
Due to Lee’s retirement, Payne hired Tom Stone who had a private practice in Madison to fill the role as division chief.
“I’m just truly grateful. I’m so lucky that I get to do what I really love,” Payne said. “For me, it’s a pleasure to get up and come to work. I love practicing law.”
Payne said that although he will have the title as public defender and will oversee both Lake City and Live Oak offices, he plans to continue to make his presence known in the courtroom, doing what he loves.