Lawyers serving in the legislature

first_img December 15, 2005 Regular News It’s Geller’s role in the Senate Jan Pudlow Senior Editor When Steven Geller was a boy in the seventh grade, his teacher assigned a paper on what he envisioned himself doing in 30 years.In his futuristic autobiography, Geller wrote that he wanted to graduate from Florida State University with a law degree, become an attorney, and go into politics, with the ultimate goal of becoming a U.S. Senator.Today, 47-year-old Geller is all of the above, except the U.S. Senator part—to which he now says: not interested.“I like being a state senator,” says Sen. Geller, D-Hallandale Beach. “But for term limits, I would stay there as long as thevoters would have me. You have to understand, as an AV-rated lawyer, as someone who has practiced law for 24 years, I earn a good living—but not a great living. What I mean about that, I haven’t salted away the millions yet. Accordingly, I can’t afford to take any job that would require me to give up my law practice.”At Geller, Geller and Garfinkel in Hollywood, Geller practices zoning and land use law, and his brother, Joe, is his law partner.Because he can still practice law, Steve Geller, married to Laurel Leffler of West Palm Beach, and father of two sons, says, “Being a senator is the best job in the state.. . . I deeply regret that voters wanted term limits. Would you like to have your neurosurgery done by someone with eight-year term limits? Would you like the guy flying the big jumbo jet to have to resign eight years after getting his pilot license? Insurance, criminal justice, growth management: I can speak authoritatively on all of those issues. I am not smarter. I am more experienced.”Since the ninth grade when Geller was a Young Democrat, continuing to college where he was president of the FSU Young Democrats, he has been steeped in party politics. Now he is putting a decade of legislative experience as a state representative (1988-98) in the House and another eight years in the Senate to further the cause of the Democratic Party by striking a moderate balance.Four years ago, Geller was the founder of Florida Mainstream Democrats, now chaired by Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres. The Web site — — describes it as an “organization comprised of centrist elected officials throughout the state to reach out to disenchanted Democratic voters who cross over to vote Republican.”Geller launches into what he calls his friend Sen. Rod Smith’s story that he tells better:“A North Florida voter leaves the house at 5 a.m., drives two and a half hours to drop the kids off at his parents, because it’s the only daycare he can afford. Then he drives another 45 minutes to drop his wife off to do a double shift at the convenience store, before driving to his job at the Department of Corrections. The back bumper on his 25-year-old pickup truck has a Bush sticker. This guy is really a Democrat, but he doesn’t know it. He thinks the damn liberal Democrats want to take away his guns. He wants to make sure his kids aren’t prevented from learning about their own religion. He thinks we all wear pink underwear and want to turn the country over to the commies, the gays, and whoever else. In his own economic self-interest, he’s a Democrat. We are trying to let people like that know that they are Democrats,” says Geller, who adds: “I happen to regard myself as religious. I am on the board of my temple and my children go to religious school two days a week.”He notes that Democrats have not had a net gain in the Senate since 1982.“I believe that will change next time,” Geller said. “I am feeling very hopeful. I am looking at a couple of seats. My general consultant is Craig Smith, who was the political director for the Clinton White House, just as Karl Rove is now for the Bush White House. People ask, ‘How did you get a guy like him managing your caucus race?’ If you are a Democrat, there are really two states that matter right now: Ohio and Florida, the two big swing states. Ohio is shrinking, and we’re growing. I showed him my plan and he liked it.”Encouraged by polls reflecting the public’s current loss of faith in the Republicans, if the sentiment holds until next November, Geller predicts more Democrats elected to office.Meanwhile, back at the Florida Senate, Geller says, “Don’t make any mistake: Republicans are in charge and they set the agenda and get taken care of. There is no attempt to punish Democrats because they are Democrats, as it happens frequently in the House. In the Senate, we make sure we treat our members with courtesy and respect. If we can’t reach an agreement, we will do what the Republicans in charge want. But I can’t say Democrats haven’t been given input.”Because there are only 40 senators, Geller said, “It’s hard to vilify any of them. We spend so much time together, and it’s a very collegial group. I wear a ring that says ‘Senate of the State of Florida.’ It’s a very exclusive club. Regardless of party affiliation, I have been respectful of the way I would want to be treated.”As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Geller said he spends “a tremendous amount of time and effort trying to promote the separation of church and state, trying to make sure we have an independent judiciary. I can tell you, a lot of legislators clearly don’t get it. Mostly, they say, ‘The voters elected us so the courts should rule the way we tell them to.’ You try to tell them, ‘That’s one of the reasons we have a court, so you can’t do whatever you think sounds good in a given week.’”Geller braces for another attempt in the Senate Judiciary Committee to rewrite the Florida Constitution.“It is the first time I aware of, in my 18 years in the legislature, that a nonlawyer is the chair of Judiciary. Sen. (Dan) Webster, (R-Winter Garden), has assured me they only want to operate by consensus and not eliminate controversial issues, and streamline. If that is accurate, that is a tremendous amount of work for not much gain. I believe Sen. Webster to be an honorable man. I hope it does not get hi-jacked. I trust the Senate more than the House. I do not trust the Florida Legislature. And you can quote me.”Geller points warily to past attempts to strike the constitutional right to privacy, when Gov. Bob Martinez called a special session on abortion. He mentions Gov. Jeb Bush has never liked the class size amendment.“With much of the current Republican leadership, if they don’t like a constitutional amendment, they will ignore it,” Geller said. “I didn’t like the bullet train, but my bosses told me to raise my right hand and uphold the constitution. Some colleagues seem to forget and ignore it.”Another issue to watch out for once again is tort reform, said Geller, vice chair of the Banking and Insurance Committee.“All it continues to be is protecting mostly out-of-state manufacturers and shifting responsibility to consumers,” Geller said. “I did a white paper that showed the cause of the crisis is to a large degree a manufactured crisis. The insurance industry gets to manipulate the rates.. . . As far as I can tell, they instigated the whole crisis. They couldn’t get what they wanted by themselves, because they are seen as the black hats. So they duped doctors in aligning with them.. . . One of my major regrets in Tallahassee is that lawyers and doctors are both learned professions, and we should be allies.”One of the bills Geller has filed this year would create a stem cell research program, using existing stem cell line embryos originally created for fertility treatments, and he’s asking for $10 million to launch it.Does he expect a big emotional fight?“If it gets heard, I expect it will be,” Geller said. “Just like Terri Schiavo. And that’s a perfect example of why we need more lawyers in the legislature.. . . I can tell you I read every appellate court ruling before I began to discuss it. But lack of information did not prevent people from discussing it, despite no actual knowledge.. . . There have been many frustrating episodes. But I think that will change.” Lawyers serving in the legislaturecenter_img Lawyers serving in the legislature Editor’s Note: In Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature, two Democratic lawyer-legislators from Southeast Florida with similar last names rise to the challenge to make their voices heard at the Capitol.Sen. Steven A. Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, is vice chair of Banking and Insurance, and also serves as a member of Community Affairs, Government Efficiency Appropriations, Judiciary, Regulated Industries, and Rules and Calendar committees.Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, is vice chair of the Domestic Security Committee, as well as serving as a member of the Choice & Innovation, Judiciary, and Justice Appropriations committees. Gelber is House minority leader designate.The News caught up with both Geller and Gelber to discuss their careers, goals, and issues that lawyers should watch for during the upcoming 2006 legislative session. Look for more conversations with Florida’s lawyer-legislators in upcoming issues of the News. Gelber rallies House Democrats Jan Pudlow Senior Editor When Dan Gelber needs an unvarnished opinion of himself, he listens to his 86-year-old dad, Seymour Gelber, one of the oldest sitting senior judges in Miami, a former chief juvenile judge, and former mayor of Miami Beach.“I probably talk to my dad at least once a day,” says 45-year-old Gelber. “He was the best man at my wedding and is still my best friend. He is my advisor and enforcer. It’s nice to have someone call you up and tell you how stupid you sound.”When Rep. Gelber, D-Miami Beach, speaks, a lot of Floridians are listening.He writes frequent op-ed pieces like a lawyer writes briefs, tersely and passionately framing his position on everything from protecting the Sunshine Law to keeping citizens in the initiative process to Medicaid. During legislative committee meetings or in front of the cameras, Gelber is not afraid to speak his mind even though he’s in the minority party.When the Florida House Judiciary Committee chair Rep. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, announced his intention to complete a streamlining review of the constitution, Gelber was quick to call such an exercise “the epitome of arrogance.”“It’s rank overreaching. I don’t think they understand what they are getting into,” Gelber said. “Whatever they are trying to filter out of the constitution, they were significant ideas to the people who wanted them. Whether it’s class size, universal pre-K, in a perfect world they may not be in the constitution; but the reason citizens wanted it in the constitution is because they couldn’t get a hearing. Each one has pretty serious support and a documented history of being ignored by the legislature.”Gelber says he loves the exercise of sitting on the House Judiciary Committee, likening the debates to oral arguments as a lawyer.Sometimes, during those committee meetings, it’s as though he is trying a case with co-counsel Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Pompano Beach.“Some people say we share the same brain,” Gelber says with a laugh.Gelber—a lawyer at Zuckerman Spaeder in Miami doing corporate integrity work and general litigation and married to federal prosecutor Joan Silverstein—has plenty of experience practicing law.After graduating from Tufts University magna cum laude and the University of Florida College of Law where he was Truman Scholar, Gelber was only 24 when he became one of the youngest federal prosecutors in the country. During those early years prosecuting public corruption and civil rights cases, Gelber said he would wake up thinking: “How great somebody is paying me to do this!”Then U.S. Sen. San Nunn appointed Gelber chief counsel and staff director of the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where he directed investigations into global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, well before America’s shattering wake-up call of 9/11.“My first job was to find out how the Japanese had obtained serin gas,” Gelber said, of the release of the deadly nerve agent in a Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed a dozen people and injured more than 5,500 and was attributed to Japan’s Aum Doomsday Cult.“I went around the world twice interviewing and investigating what it was, how they had obtained such sophisticated weaponry under the noses of the international community. I looked at real world W.M.D.s.”Because of that background in terrorism, his Republican colleagues at the Florida Legislature have made him vice chair of the Domestic Security Committee.“There’s a different chair every year, and I’m always vice chair,” Gelber said. “I can’t argue that I haven’t had a forum. They have given me not only a forum, they have listened to me.”How does a Democrat find an audience in a Republican-controlled legislature?“There’s no question the House is much more partisan than the Senate,” Gelber said. “On the other hand, I think in this process, if you are thoughtful and do your homework and you are not a jerk, you have currency. Even people I disagree with, I try to treat with respect. My style is not unlike what I learned as a prosecutor. The court expects more from you as a prosecutor. I try to conduct myself that way: firmly and try to be fair. If you do that, people hear what you have to say.”It’s tougher in the House, Gelber concludes.“The Senate tends to be very bipartisan.. . Senates are considered ‘the pause that refreshes.’ Houses tend to be more of the show and burlesque. In a sense, it’s up to the right-thinking House members to reveal the burlesque for what it is. If an idea really out of the mainstream is treated as a serious piece of policy, sometimes we do seem exercised. I think we are trying to telegraph that this is really not a mainstream idea and shouldn’t be treated as such. We want the media to know it. We want the Senate and the governor to know it.”What Gelber wants Florida’s lawyers to know is it’s wise to remain vigilant when it comes to attacks on the judiciary, because “the judiciary cannot stand up on its own.”“Even if it looks like a great year, don’t let your guard down,” Gelber warns. “I’ve seen some pretty far out stuff become the law.” Like what?“First of all, the JNCs,” Gelber was quick to answer, referring to the change in the judicial nominating committee process that gives the governor much more power in choosing who sits on the screening panels, and the ability to reject the Bar’s nominees as many times as he wishes.“I don’t like that at all,” Gelber said. “The governor should want a greater variety of choices, not the same choices. As soon as lawyers think the JNC process is an unappetizing process, then you don’t get the selection you hope for. If lawyers don’t want to suffer the nominating process, then the whole judiciary is harmed. I worry that is happening. and large, I give the governor high marks in his selections. But I wish people didn’t have the perception: ‘Don’t bother; don’t apply.’”While every major assault on the judiciary has come from the right wing, Gelber points out, the defense of the judiciary has been bipartisan.“Clearly there is a group of Republicans who seem to have contempt for an independent judiciary and the Bar. The defense of that comes from other Republicans and Democrats. It’s important not to be a screaming partisan and try to have thoughtful debate,” Gelber said.“There have been some really harsh ideas that have made it surprisingly far, if not into law. As I tell my colleagues, every legislator has lawyers of both parties in their districts.. . . They have to make judicial independence their No. 1 issue to their legislators. Let them know this is what we care about. If the judiciary has to worry about being independent, strange things can happen.”Pointing out he comes from a family devoted to public service, it was a natural move for Gelber to run for the open House seat he won in 2000, and was reelected to in 2002 and 2004. His jobs as a prosecutor and in the U.S. Senate showed him how government policy can improve the lives of people.“If you want to be a good guy and improve your community, you need some place to do that,” Gelber said of his desire to run for public office. But he admits this father of three has learned much more about being a good guy from his volunteer work as co-founder and head counselor at Camp Fiesta Summer Oncology Camp, since 1985.Gelber has bunked with kids in his cabin who have lost their eyesight or their legs to cancer, and just wanted to be treated like anyone else. A dozen years later, his own nephew contracted cancer and died as a young boy, and Gelber said he was well-practiced in helping his sister and nephew deal with the harsh reality of a terminal illness head-on.“You think you do important stuff. You think you have big issues and big problems. Then you learn there are things way more important and way more vexing,” Gelber said. “It’s totally humbling to be with an 8-year-old confronting cancer. In a lot of ways, it adjusts your life perspective. It gives it a little realism and gives you a sense of priorities. Nothing I have done has been as significant as what these kids go through.”last_img

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