TAMPA — A Hillsborough judge under withering attack from conservatives for saying he will use Islamic law to decide if an arbitration award was correct apparently wants to explain himself.
Circuit Judge Richard Nielsen took the unusual step of issuing an opinion Tuesday even though the 2nd District Court of Appeal has stayed proceedings in a lawsuit against the Islamic Education Center of Tampa filed by four ousted trustees.
The opinion does not add anything that isn't already in the court file nor does it make any finding of law. But Nielsen appears to take great pains to explain the reasoning behind his controversial decision.
The issue involves whether an arbitration award in the case by an Islamic scholar, called an a'lim, was proper. The a'lim ruled Dec. 28 that the mosque's ex-trustees were ousted improperly, a decision that, if it sticks, might wrest control of $2.2 million from the center's current leaders.
The mosque got the money from the state after it used some of the mosque's land for a road project.
"From the outset of learning of the purported arbitration award, the court's concern has been whether there were ecclesiastical principles for dispute resolution involved that would compel the court to adopt the arbitration decision without considering state law," Tuesday's opinion said.
"The court has concluded that as to the question of enforceability of the arbitrator's award the case should proceed under ecclesiastical Islamic law," the judge wrote.
The judge noted in his opinion that he must hear further testimony to determine whether "Islamic dispute resolution procedures have been followed in this matter."
Nielsen's assistant said Tuesday the judge would not comment on pending litigation.
The judge's March 3 ruling saying he would use Islamic law, known as sharia, to decide the arbitration issue was quickly appealed by the mosque's attorney to the 2nd DCA. The mosque argues that state law should decide the issue and to inject religion into the case violates the U.S. Constitution.
The mosque's attorney, Paul Thanasides, also wants to take deposition testimony from the a'lim, who lives in Texas.
In an irony probably not lost on some of the litigants, the a'lim's attorney has filed a motion with a Texas judge to prevent Thanasides from deposing the a'lim.
What does the attorney think bars testimony by an arbitrator?
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.