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Eyes on judge in Schiavo case

In a case dominated by strong personalities, everyone has an opinion on what's best for Terri Schiavo.

The parents.

The husband.

The governor.

The Legislature.

But at the center of the latest controversy, one man is left to decide.

Those who know Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird say he will set aside political rhetoric and gut-wrenching emotion.

Instead, he will focus on the law.

At issue is whether the Legislature violated the Florida Constitution by passing a new law that allowed Gov. Jeb Bush to force doctors to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube Oct. 21.

On Wednesday, attorneys for Schiavo's husband filed a 44-page legal brief challenging "Terri's Law" and asking Baird to overturn it as unconstitutional.

Now, the eyes of the nation turn to Baird.

Known for his bookish intelligence and scholarly approach, he is an unwilling subject of the limelight.

"I think this entire matter has already become more than it should about personalities and less about the law," said Baird, 60, who declined to be interviewed. "I don't think I need to contribute to that."

Friends, family and colleagues say that is typical of his low-key demeanor and academic, contemplative bent. They are qualities that friends say will serve Baird well in the Schiavo case.

"He's a good man to make that decision," said fellow Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge John Lenderman. "And God bless him. He's going to have his hands full."

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Born in Knoxville, Tenn., Baird has lived in Pinellas County since 1947. He went to Gulfport Elementary School and graduated from Boca Ciega High. As a child, he went to Sunday school at the Methodist Pasadena Community Church and played catcher on a Little League team sponsored by Dwight Mowers.

In high school, Baird played linebacker on the varsity football team until a knee injury sidelined him in his senior year. Devastated, he switched gears and sang baritone with a school choral group called the Baker's Dozen.

Baird's parents, who live in St. Petersburg, said their son devoured all sorts of books as a kid. At times, his mother, Martha, had to shove him outdoors.

"I thought he was reading when he should have been playing," she said. "He would have been perfectly happy, I think, just to read."

On a cross-country road trip after his junior year, Baird fell in love with Boulder, Colo., and he went back after graduation to study at the University of Colorado. He remains an avid "Buffs" fan.

Married to Marilyn Brown, a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, Baird has two grown children from a previous marriage and a daughter with Brown who attends the University of Florida.

He has two sisters, one older, one younger, and a younger brother, Ed, a world-renowned America's Cup sailor.

Judge Baird is a registered Republican, known for his easy laugh and dry sense of humor. He loves the Devil Rays and music, with eclectic tastes that run the gamut from jazz to Van Morrison.

In the waiting area outside his chambers, he used to keep back issues of Rolling Stone magazine.

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The Schiavo case is not Baird's first brush with the controversial. In 15 years on the circuit court bench, Baird has presided over a number of sensational criminal and civil court battles.

In 1994, he sentenced Lorenzo Jenkins to die in the electric chair for killing Belleair police Officer Jeffery Tackett. His decision, which overrode a jury's recommendation to send the Clearwater man to prison for life without parole, was overturned on appeal.

In 1996, Baird upheld the conviction of Michael Diana, the first cartoonist in United States history to be jailed for obscenity. In another case debated hotly in local circles, Baird cleared the way for "Eight is Enough," the initiative on term limits for county politicians, to be placed on the ballot.

To colleagues on the bench, the case that epitomizes Baird's judicial personality is a complex and seemingly dry class-action lawsuit filed in 1999 against Florida Progress by its stockholders.

In the suit, shareholders claimed the company's directors failed to get the best price in a deal to sell the power company to Carolina Power & Light, now called Progress Energy. Quietly, the two sides agreed to settle and brought their agreement to Baird for approval. Under the deal, the law firm representing shareholders was to receive $375,000 in fees while Florida Progress won sweeping release from future liability.

The shareholders would get nothing.

Comparing the deal to a form of extortion common on big city streets, Baird rejected the settlement. In a 16-page ruling that colleagues say was faxed all over the country as much for its wit as its legal analysis, Baird wrote:

"This action appears to be the class litigation equivalent of the "Squeegee boys' who used to frequent major urban intersections and who would run up to a stopped car, splash soapy water on its perfectly clean windshield and expect payment for the uninvited service of wiping it off."

A less conscientious judge, Baird's colleagues agree, might have signed off on the deal.

"He's very good at getting down to the nitty gritty and figuring out what needs to be looked at carefully," said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Jim Case.

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Baird, of course, won't have the last word on the Schiavo case. No matter what he decides, the ruling almost certainly will be appealed. There is virtually no chance Schiavo's feeding tube will be removed or left in based on Baird's ruling alone, experts say.

But even though his opinion won't be binding, it still could be persuasive, said Michael Allen, a constitutional law and civil procedure professor at Baird's alma mater, Stetson University. "It depends upon how much effort Judge Baird puts into this," Allen said. "The pressure to make a decision is great. The eyes of the nation are on this."

Already, friends are peppering Baird's father about which direction his son is leaning.

"People ask me, "Well? What's he going to do?' " said Phil Baird, 84.

The Bairds said this week they haven't talked to their son about the case. His ruling will speak for itself.

"We just hope that the way he interprets, it is right," said Phil Baird. "And he does, too."

_ Times staff writer Craig Pittman and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrellsptimes.com.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird must decide whether "Terri's Law" is constitutional. "I think this entire matter has already become more than it should about personalities and less about the law," said Baird.

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