Villalobos to lead Senate
March 15, 2005 Managing Editor Regular News Villalobos to lead Senate Villalobos to lead Senate Miami lawyer-legislator set to preside in 2008 Mark D. Killian Managing Editor Republican J. Alex Villalobos is positioned to become the first lawyer to lead the Florida Senate in over a decade.Villalobos has lined up enough pledges from the 24 GOP senators to assume the mantle of president in 2008, after the runs of current President Tom Lee of Brandon and Ken Pruitt of Port St. Lucie. If his support holds and the Republicans maintain their Senate advantage, the current majority leader from Miami will be the first lawyer to hold the job since Republican James A. Scott in 1995-96 and would be the first Cuban American to ever preside over the upper chamber.Villalobos, who maintains a general practice with his father — Jose A. Villalobos — in Miami, was first elected to the House in 1992 and to the Senate in 2000. He is vice chair of the Judiciary Committee.Villalobos recently sat down with the News in his Tallahassee office to discuss his legislative philosophy and share with his lawyer colleagues a little about himself. What does it mean to you to be a lawyer-legislator? The idea of a part-time legislature is a good one. Florida is very complex. IfFlorida was a country, we would be the 15th largest economy on the planet. I’ve been here 13 years now and when I go to committee meetings, I learn something new all the time. We have members who are engineers, physicians, educators, well diggers; you name it we have it here. And we actually have very few attorneys. Most people think the legislature is filled with attorneys and in the majority we only have three attorneys. Myself, Sen. [Burt] Saunders [Naples], and Sen. [Lisa] Carlton [Osprey]. We draw upon each other’s expertise. It has its place and members take advantage of that expertise. Talk about your philosophy in regard to the independence of the judiciary and the legislature’s role in dealing with the courts. I am a strong believer in the three branches of government. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues in the past said that the three branches of government were the House, the Senate, and the executive. And no, that is not it at all. Our government works very well because of the checks and balances and I believe the judiciary has to be totally and completely independent from the executive branch and from the legislature. Just as we believe we are totally and completely different from the executive — regardless of who is there — we are jealous of our authority, and I tell my colleagues just like you do not want the courts — which they sometimes do — overstepping their bounds, they expect you not to do the same thing. How can the Bar assist the legislature and what should the Bar’s role be in the legislative process? The Bar can play a very active role because some issues are very complex. I actually spoke to some of the justices about this last year when I was chair of judiciary and I spoke to members of the Bar and you all have very focused sections of the Bar in which you have experts who deal with particular issues. That is very important and a lot of times when very complex issues come before a committee, and we discuss them publicly, some will say that sounds good, maybe we can do it this way or that way. But just because it sounds good doesn’t mean that is the best way or the proper way or the legal way to do things. And that is where I think the Bar can take a proactive role. Rather than us create legislation that would be found unconstitutional down the line or unusable or unworkable or impractical, I believe it is important for the Bar to play a practical role. . . to step up to the plate at that time when we are discussing these things at committee and say, “You know what? That sounds good, but that is not how it really works and perhaps you should consider this option.” If they would do that more often, members listen. We should take advantage of that. What are your thoughts about the current Supreme Court and its administration of the court system? I’m very pleased with the Supreme Court and I think Chief Justice [Barbara] Pariente — besides being a great justice — she is a great person. She is a person who I highly admire. She has her set of opinions and some people don’t like them, but I think that is what makes the system great, that people can have different opinions and that’s what makes it work. I think she is a great role model and we need more people like her. While it is a ways off and things can change in the interim, what would be some of your priorities when you become Senate president? I really have not set out an agenda.. . . I think it is important for people to respect the legislature and the way that is accomplished is by the legislature respecting the different branches of government and respecting other people. that I mean it is important to draw our ideas from the talent we have up here. We have all these experts in all these different fields and they bring a lot to the table. It is important that we don’t quash those ideas or be critical of them because that has a chilling effect on people wishing to share ideas. My philosophy is that if we have a good issue, a good idea, and it is good public policy, then we will do it. And if it is not good public policy, then we won’t. What are some of the challenges facing the legislature this year and in the near term? Medicaid funding is critical. If we don’t do something — and I don’t know what that is yet because we are going through the process of public hearings — the amount of money that is being spent on Medicaid is going to bankrupt the state at some point. Medicaid is crucial.The amendments to the constitution are doing a great harm to the state because all kinds of things that shouldn’t be in the constitution are getting in. I think the process by which that occurs is flawed.Tort reform is something you hear a lot of people talk about. My position on tort reform — and I’ve talked to the [Senate] president about it who also shares a similar view — is are there some people filing lawsuits that they shouldn’t and getting verdicts that they shouldn’t? Absolutely. So that is a problem. But does that mean that you give businesses complete immunity so they don’t have to take care of people and don’t have any responsibility for their actions? Absolutely not. So we need to do something regarding the number of cases that are in the system because it is not justice to have a case. . . and wait two years for any action. That is just not fair to the plaintiff and the defendant and in a criminal matter, it is just not fair to the victim or the defendant. But I believe the court is moving in the direction of really streamlining the way the courts are run in this state. And naturally that requires adequate funding.The governor’s proposal is to fund a number of new judges, which is a good thing because we have not done that in the past few years. We created the Delphi system [a case-based formula for determining the number of judges needed] for a purpose and we ended up not using it. The problem with that though is if you also don’t give [newly created judges] the infrastructure that they need — by that I mean the clerks, the space, the public defenders, the state attorneys, the pencils, and the paper — then I don’t think we have accomplished anything. Just bumping up the number of judges is not going to get us to where we need to be. I think we are better off, actually, with fewer new judges, but all adequately funded. If I understand correctly, you practice with your dad in Miami. What’s that like? I would not trade it for anything. In the last few months I’ve gotten a lot of offers to go with some big firms, but I like working with my dad. We could make a lot more money, I guess, doing something else, but the fact that I can spend quality time with my dad is a value in and of itself. We make a good living and would not trade it for anything else. I think it is a privilege to be able to work with my dad. Does being in public office and the time commitment that entails take a toll on your practice? Yes, it does.. . it is very difficult at times, but it helps that it is me and my dad. We don’t do state work. It is a small father-son operation. . . with clients we have had for many, many years.. . . What do you enjoy most about practicing law? I’ll tell you what I miss most about practicing law: I don’t go to court as often as I used to. I used to be in court five days a week. [Villalobos was hired out of law school as an assistant state attorney in North Florida’s Second Circuit.] I thought that was going to be the path my wife and I were going to take. I went to undergrad at the University of Miami and moved up [to Tallahassee] for law school and my wife started working for the legislature. We were very happy. But my mother-in-law had cancer and passed away and it broke both our hearts and we moved back to Miami to be near family, and that’s when I started to practice with my dad and did a lot of trial work in the early ’90s. I don’t get to do that much now. Now a lot of my stuff is paper-related rather than court-related. What does it take to be in position to become Senate president? Is it a long road? It is a long road and it is a very humbling road. The fact that members I have looked up to for many, many years — back to when I was in the House — who I have admired, who I consider to be much smarter and much more prominent than I am — the fact that they have supported me really makes me feel very humble. And I get the feeling that “Gosh, I hope I don’t let these guys down.” I’ve looked up to them for a very long time and now they look toward me and I just hope I’m up to the task. Since you have been in the legislature, how has the process changed and have those changes been for the better or the worse? The legislature, I think, has gotten much better. There is a lot more transparency. When I was elected, I was in the minority party in the House and we did not get a lot of air time. The Republicans took control of the house in 1996; Dan Webster [of Winter Garden and now a senator] became speaker.. . . Sen. Webster is a very fair individual and rather than punish people who had not exactly been good to us, he just gave everybody an opportunity and placed people where he thought they could do the most good and I learned a lot from that experience. I would have been, at that time, probably more vengeful, and he taught me a very valuable lesson that has really changed my way of doing things.The budget now is very transparent and online. I think it is amazing that we can have a budget that this year is going to approach $60 billion, yet, as we do amendments, the people reading this story can actually see it in real time. An amendment is drafted on the floor of the Senate to move $100 million from one place to the next — we do that often — but what is incredible to me is that anyone with access to the Internet can see it in real time before we actually vote on it.. . . At some municipal or county levels. . . nobody knows who did what. We can move that kind of money, but your tag is on that. You, the individual that did that, would be responsible and if it is great idea — great. If it is a bad idea, it’s your fault. That sense of responsibility is good. What else, if anything, should members of The Florida Bar know about Sen. Villalobos? I wish more members of the Bar would get involved in the legislature. One thing that has always fascinated me about this process is people think all our minds are made up on all these issues, that it is all scripted, and it really isn’t. You would be surprised how many times we have been on the floor and somebody will come up with an amendment and just change the course of history. Or we will be in a committee meeting — and it has happened to me where I have made up my mind and want to do a bill a certain way and that is how I was going to do it.. . and somebody will get up and say, “How about doing it this way?” And I’ll think, yeah, that is an improvement. So the fact that you can change things just because somebody stood up and said something, I think is incredible. That’s why I would like more participation from [Bar] members. Rather than be critical after things are done.. . come up here and tell us before we do it. Being critical is easy; being proactive and getting things done is a lot harder. There is a lot of talent in The Florida Bar, a lot of experience. The session is only eight weeks. If more members would take just a couple of days — and I know it is very hard to do — and come up here and fan out and give their input, it would make Florida a better place, and I think more people will be more respectful of the profession than they are today.