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Judge behind the 'Taj Mahal' takes demotion on appeals court

TALLAHASSEE — Chief Judge Paul M. Hawkes resigned Friday from the top job at the 1st District Court of Appeal, just a few weeks before moving into a new courthouse critics have dubbed the "Taj Mahal" and "Taj MaHawkes."

Hawkes, 53, who did not resign from the court, would not discuss his reason for resigning as chief judge before his term was up June 30, 2011.

Hawkes offered his resignation at an emergency conference with his fellow judges Friday morning. In a one-sentence letter later in the day, court clerk Jon Wheeler notified the Supreme Court and other district court of appeal judges of the election of Judge Robert T. Benton II to replace Hawkes.

Benton, 64, starts as chief judge Monday and will serve through June 30, 2013. He would not discuss the sudden election.

A graduate of the University of Florida and Harvard Law School, Benton has been on the court since 1994, appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Canady would not respond Friday to reports that he had asked for Hawkes' resignation, saying only, "I respect Judge Hawkes' decision."

Last month Canady referred to the Judicial Qualifications Commission a state audit that accused Hawkes and other judges of bullying state officials charged with building the courthouse. The JQC has the power to discipline or remove judges.

Hawkes, who had been the court's chief judge since January 2009, has defended the $48 million courthouse since the St. Petersburg Times described the posh judicial suites equipped with kitchens and private bathrooms, 60-inch televisions, granite countertops, a private gym and other amenities. Other courts, meantime, are laying off employees and going without repairs to leaking rooftops and failing air-conditioning systems.

Hawkes says the building, nearing completion about 6 miles east of the Capitol, is dignified and appropriate for a courthouse. He contends state legislators contributed to the escalated costs by requiring that the court build an environmentally friendly structure.

A state audit released last month accused Hawkes and some of the other judges of taking control of the project and escalating the cost by including luxury amenities.

Hawkes and fellow Judge Brad Thomas spent more than five years aggressively lobbying state lawmakers for money to build the courthouse. The project became a reality after legislators approved a $33.5 million bond issue as part of a transportation bill passed on the last day of the 2007 session.

Hawkes and Thomas are former legislative staffers who also worked for Gov. Jeb Bush's budget office. Bush appointed Hawkes to the court in 2003 and Thomas in 2005. Hawkes served in the Legislature as a House member from Citrus County from 1990 to 1994.

He also has been in a dispute with the Supreme Court over the use of some of the space in the new building. Canady is exploring using some of the new courthouse to house administrative employees who work for the entire court system and are now housed in rental quarters at a cost of about $287,000 a year.

Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

Judge behind the 'Taj Mahal' takes demotion on appeals court 11/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 19, 2010 9:35pm]
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