Simmons opts for the logical approach
Simmons opts for the logical approach
The senator often works with Bar sections on their priorities
“You can’t let personality keep you from getting to the policy.”
Sen. David Simmons, R-Longwood, takes that attitude into the high-visibility, high- pressure world of the Florida Legislature, where he is known for his thorough nuts-and-bolts approach. Some bills are at the center of major policy debates, and others are more pedestrian but necessary for the day-to-day operation of business and the legal system.
Perhaps that’s an outgrowth of the rather unusual course this lawyer-legislator took to the legal profession and then public service.
Simmons was a physics major at Tennessee Technological University when he read about Abraham Lincoln and “believed that anyone who has done what he has done, well, I wanted to emulate it.”
So he changed his major from physics to math, a discipline studiously avoided by many lawyers.
“My thinking is it would be more acceptable for someone going to law school,” Simmons said. “The beauty of being a math major or a science major is it teaches logic, and logic is a great thing for the law.”
Graduating with top grades from the math department, Simmons attended Vanderbilt University Law School, where he received his law degree in 1977. He moved to Florida the same year and joined The Florida Bar.
A few years later, Simmons was a founding partner of de Beaubien, Knight, Simmons, Mantzaris & Neal, where he is now financial managing partner. The firm has grown to 54 lawyers with offices in Orlando, Tampa, and Tallahassee. He is Florida Bar certified in civil trial and business litigation and also certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy.
Simmons was elected to the Florida House in 2000 and was term limited out in 2008. In 2010, he was elected to the Senate and was re-elected in 2014 (he was unopposed this year). He cites the same reason for public service as why he became a lawyer: an admiration for Lincoln, who served several terms in the Illinois House.
“He stands for everything that I believe a lawyer should be,” he said.
During his service, Simmons has become associated with a number of high-profile and lesser publicized issues, often working with Bar sections on their priorities.
He helped draft the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground bill and the constitutional amendment requiring future constitutional amendments must win 60 percent voter approval. He pushed bills requiring an ignition- lock device for repeat DUI offenders and another mandating that those who refuse Breathalyzer tests lose their license. He pushed bills for extra funds for low-performing elementary schools and then a bill calling for an extra school hour a day for low-performing elementary schools.
“Done right, it has a dramatic impact and has been successful for those students in low-performing schools,” Simmons said.
In 2013, he worked with the Business Law Section on an overhaul of the state’s Limited Liability Company laws (the first since 2002), and also pushed a glitch/update bill on those laws last year. This year he teamed with the section to pass a bill on collecting final judgments.
“He’s a phenomenal legislator,” said Louis Conti, a former Business Law Section chair who has worked with Simmons on section legislative issues. “He has a real interest in what he is sponsoring. He cares about it. He wants to know the specifics, and he has very specific ideas about changes if he doesn’t like something.”
Conti recalled that in the 2013 session, the LLC legislation was hanging in the balance on the last day, when it was questionable whether it would pass in the House before adjournment because of unrelated political tensions between the upper and lower chambers. Simmons crossed the Capitol rotunda and went on the House floor to help the House sponsor.
“That’s the kind of influence he has, even as a senator going back to the House and saying, ‘Look, this is important legislation for the state and it should not get held up because of other matters,’” Conti said. “It was the last act approved and voted on in the Legislature in 2013.”
“It’s a pleasure to work with him. Sen. Simmons is one of those public servants who has a great deal of integrity and is also extremely smart and extremely knowledgeable,” said Paul Jess, deputy executive director of the Florida Justice Association. “He is a brilliant lawyer, extremely intelligent, and a great draftsman. He is extremely good at drafting legislation. . . that is very clear to the point and understandable.
“When he doesn’t agree with me, it’s always for a very sound public policy or legal reason from his point of view.”
A favorite Simmons saying, attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., is “It’s always the right time to do the right thing,” Jess said. He pointed to Simmons’ impassioned speech in 2014 on the Senate Floor for legislation that allowed José Manuel Godinez-Samperio, an undocumented immigrant and honor student, to become a Bar member, adding, “In these particular times, it’s not always the most politically expedient thing for a Republican to support helping an undocumented person. But Sen. Simmons. . . did exactly that.”
As Simmons sees it, “I believe that politics and legislation are the art of what can be done rather than trying to get 100 percent of what you want. It’s the art of compromise, and you have to be able to say, ‘I’m satisfied at this point in time to get 60 percent or 70 percent of what I want,’ and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
He has used that clout to advocate for the profession and the judiciary.
“Sometimes, when you’ve got one of the best judiciaries in the world. . . you leave it alone to do what it’s supposed to do,” Simmons said. “What I’ve pushed for is extra funding and the assurance the judiciary is given the proper funding so it can do what it does best, and that is provide justice and do it expeditiously.”
He’d also like to see more lawyers in the Legislature.
“My legal training has been the mark by which I’ve been able to achieve the things I’ve been able to achieve in the Legislature, particularly in the Senate,” Simmons said. “There have been multiple times that I have sat down, when two or three conflicting sides are trying to work out language or trying to evolve something, and I will draft it right there and send it to bill drafting.”
He expects to have plenty of opportunities to put that training to use in the next session or two.
Two recent Supreme Court rulings on workers’ compensation (including one saying workers’ lawyers deserve fair fees) will place that issue back before lawmakers, he said. A number of environmental and water quality issues must be addressed, he said, including spending environmental funds earmarked by Amendment 1, passed by voters two years ago.
“We’re going to have to deal with the relationship between Florida and the federal government related to Lake Okeechobee and demanding that the Corps of Engineers do what it is supposed to do, which is not only flood protection but protecting our environment, both with respect to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers [which have been fouled by pollution released from the lake],” Simmons said.
Another likely issue will be PIP insurance coverage.
“It’s a broken system. We tried to fix it three years ago. Go back in history and see how many times we’ve tried to fix PIP since the early 1970s,” he said.
While PIP started with $10,000 coverage more than 40 years ago, that would be worth around $35,000 in today’s dollars, Simmons said, but instead compensation has been cut to $2,500 except in emergencies.
“It’s no wonder people question the constitutionality of PIP as being an inadequate substitute for a common law cause of action,” he said.
Simmons also expects a renewed look at term limits for judges. The House in 2015 passed a constitutional amendment limiting the appellate judiciary to two six-year terms, but the Senate never considered it. Simmons said he opposes judicial term limits.