Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has been all over the news this week. On Monday, responding to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, he said all remedies must be "on the table" legislatively, including allowing teachers and principals to arm themselves on school grounds.
On Tuesday, after his comments had been reported widely, Baxley issued a statement that this is a time to respect the victims. "Contrary to media reports, no specific proposals have been advanced or filed by me," he wrote.
But proposals affecting laws Baxley has sponsored likely will dominate the 2013 legislative session. Also in the news: Florida's "stand your ground" law, for which Baxley was the House sponsor in 2005. He also served on Gov. Rick Scott's Citizen Safety and Protection Task Force to review the statute in the wake of Trayvon Martin's death in February. On Wednesday, Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith filed a bill to prevent armed Floridians from automatically claiming "stand your ground" protections if they provoke or pursue their assailants.
And in the wake of Florida's latest election debacle, critics are blasting House Bill 1355, another Baxley measure, which last year cut early voting days from 14 to 8. On Wednesday, former Gov. Charlie Crist told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that the state should return to more early-voting days.
An Ocala funeral director, Baxley was elected to the state House in 2000, served until 2007, ran for the state Senate, lost, and was reelected to the House in 2010. While out of office, he was executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida. He was honored with the NRA's Defender of Freedom Award in 2004. He and his wife, Micheline, have five children.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Dennis Baxley:
Q: How will you respond to calls for legislative changes to "stand your ground?"
BAXLEY: I'm going to be very cautious about any effort to diminish or repeal the self-defense provisions that we have. A law-abiding citizen who's doing nothing wrong, who comes under a violent attack, should not be re-victimized by the legal system and treated as a criminal when he did the right thing: he stopped a violent act. Or she stopped a violent act. By and large, I find that most of the population has a lot of confidence in our self-defense statute.
I think what we have uncovered is there's some real issues in uniform application and understanding of what the statute is or is not. There's nothing in that statute that authorizes you to confront, provoke, pursue. There will be many people reach for this statute as a defense that are going to find it's not what they think it is.
I think there could be some greater uniformity developed in education of law enforcement, how to apply this feature of the law. The court system is evolving, with precedents and procedures, a more uniform application. The best thing about some of the current stories is there's a better understanding of what the policy is.
At the end of the day, if you empower people to stop violent acts from occurring, they can, they will and they did.
Q: What do you hope will emerge from your new committee chairmanship?
BAXLEY: Judiciary touches a lot of issues I care deeply about. Definitely the criminal justice background, where I've chaired that subcommittee before, has some areas that I'd like to work on. Looking at smart justice ideas is going to be a big part of this session. And I also think we'll get to address some of the self-defense bill aspects.
That work in the civil justice arena is also very important to business and the productivity of the state. You know, in the business world, not having a decision is the most paralyzing effect of not having the judiciary operating in order. So we want to make sure we've done all we can to help that function correctly.
Q: Are you approaching your committee with an eye to accountability?
BAXLEY: Absolutely. I think there's two parts to this. One is, I truly believe in personal accountability in that each of us, whatever's happened to us, we don't benefit from being self-identified as victims but instead empowered to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions.
At the same time, I also believe in redemption. And I think if we handle some things smarter, we could reduce the number of victims of crime and greatly reduce recidivism. That's the sign I'd like to get up: "Don't come back when you leave our state prison system." If we do some things right with some individuals, I think we could improve our numbers in that arena.
Q: Will you be supporting "smart justice" initiatives?
BAXLEY: Definitely, I think, opening the prison doors to let faith and character-based programs interact with us, particularly those that get inmates on a continuum. We know they're re-entering. What are we doing to prepare for that day? It's just like knowing your son is going to graduate or turn 18. You need to be preparing for that day. And re-entry has got to become more of an intentional directive in preparation for that day so that we can reduce recidivism in the state prison system.
I don't really care if you come to the table because you want to save a billion dollars in corrections. That's a worthy goal. Or your brother-in-law's in state prison and can't get drug treatment. There's plenty of good reasons to come to this nexus.
But accountability will be a piece. And also, bring your data. We're going to look at states like Texas and Georgia and South Carolina, many of them tough on crime, but also have developed smart-on-crime techniques that have reduced their prison population and helped reduce crime rates.
Q: Will prison privatization be part of your agenda?
BAXLEY: Privatization's a tool. It can work well or it can be problematic, depending on if you have the right tool for the right job. I have no doubt that in a number of arenas it'll continue to be a discussion about when and how to use that privatization tool.
So, no, I don't think that discussion's over. There's some things that happened with it that are beneficial. I think just getting a review of all your personnel, getting them all drug tested, is a major feat. And anywhere we can achieve some efficiencies for the taxpayer good. The greatest efficiency would be to reduce recidivism.
Q: What can we expect to see as the state implements the Affordable Care Act?
BAXLEY: Health care is going to be a giant this year. How we deal with transformations that are coming at us will be a major feature of the session. We're going to need some leadership on that. I think what Joe Negron's doing is tremendous, and I'm sure that the House and Senate will conference with the governor on these issues, and we'll build a response. But it all looks costly.
Any time you can control your destiny, you're ahead. This may be an environment where we let the feds do what they want to do, as long as they're paying for it, without interfering from us. But long term, state officials have to take responsibility, in charge of our own destiny, for our people's sake. There's a lot of details between those two points.