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Dennis Baxley, Tom Lee Bring Business Experience to Judiciary Roles

December 27, 2012 - 6:00pm

Stacked with lawyers from both parties, the Legislature's judiciary committees are again expected to address a host of perennially controversial topics such as civil litigation, foreclosures and malpractice that often pit businesses against trial attorneys.

This session, the men directing traffic in both chambers are not members of the legal profession. Instead, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, hail from a business community that has long complained that the legal system is tilted against it.

The leaders say they will rely on committee staff and seek counsel from the attorneys on their respective committees when it comes to technical aspects of the law. But both men say their business and legislative backgrounds afford them the chance to look beyond the nuances of law to how policy affects people on the street.

"I'm not unfamiliar with the courts," Lee said after wrapping up his first Senate Judiciary Committee meeting earlier this month. "It's going to be a steep learning curve for me, but it's not the first time I've had to go and do that."

"I tease my colleagues who are lawyers on the committee that I'm not an attorney, but I have hired and fired a bunch of them," Baxley said.

Looking ahead, a slate of perennially thorny issues is expected to confront both chairmen. Florida continues to lead the nation in per capita foreclosure filings. Bills in reaction to the state's foreclosure woes have been filed in the past few years and are anticipated again.

The panels are also expected to continue debate over medical malpractice laws, which have caused feisty debates in the House and Senate in recent years.

On civil litigation, committees are expected to again debate the evidentiary standard for expert testimony, restrictions on third party liability and the admissible evidence for proof of compensatory damages.

"A lot of what the Legislature does is referee fist fights between the special interest groups," Lee said. "This committee is probably a good example of one that has to engage in that frequently."

With committees again expected to pick up the pace next month, the pair has received praise from both sides for their legislative experience and leadership skills, attributes that business groups and litigators say will at least give their respective constituencies a fair shot.

"We never count our chickens before the eggs hatch, but we are encouraged that the chairmen are small-business men," said David Hart, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The Republican-led Legislature has long sought to limit legal damages against businesses and groups such as doctors. Paul Jess, general counsel for the Florida Justice Association, said he expects those battles to continue.

"I do not, however, think that the appointment of two non-attorneys as chairs indicates a change in policy toward the courts in either chamber," Jess said.

Baxley said the fact that nonlawyers are heading up judiciary committees has advantages. Unlike legal scholars, he said, businesses and individuals must deal with the day-to-day impacts of legislation that didn't quite play out the way it was supposed to.

As business owners, Baxley said he and Lee have both dealt with such unintended consequences.

"Common sense can sometimes get left behind in this discussion of policy," Baxley said. "This is not an academic pursuit. These are real lives of constituents who have sent us up here."

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