TALLAHASSEE — Judge Paul M. Hawkes says all of his fellow judges at the 1st District Court of Appeal participated in key decisions leading to construction of a posh $50 million courthouse many have dubbed the Taj Mahal.
In a motion Wednesday that seeks to dismiss charges against him for conduct unbecoming a judge, Hawkes says the court and its building committee worked in concert to make almost all decisions about the granite- and mahogany-filled building.
"All on the court agreed to speak with one voice," Hawkes noted. There are 15 judges on the court.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission has charged Hawkes with abusing his authority, destroying public records and conduct that demonstrates he is unfit to hold office in connection with the project.
The commission says Hawkes has brought the entire court system into disrepute and inflicted substantial harm by blatantly pursuing such a lavish building at the same time other courts were cutting costs and laying off employees.
In a 38-page response to the charges filed last month, Hawkes argues he was just carrying out the wishes of his fellow judges and notes that other members of the court frequently praised his work as "outstanding," "herculean" and "fantastic" as he and Judge Brad Thomas pushed to obtain funds for the new building.
Hawkes, 54, argues that the new courthouse in Tallahassee, patterned after the Michigan Hall of Justice that he and other judges visited several times, was no secret.
The trouble began in the summer of 2010, Hawkes says, after the St. Petersburg Times published a series of articles about the building. That's when some political candidates began using the courthouse as "political fodder in one of the most acrimonious and hotly contested gubernatorial campaigns in our state's history."
Hawkes says allegations that he failed to act "with patience, dignity and courteousness" in dealing with state officials in charge of construction is no reason to bring charges against him. Such a broad interpretation of the rules that govern judges "would turn JQC proceedings into witch hunts," he argues.
He also challenges a charge of misconduct arising from his effort to take his son and brother on a trip to Indiana and Kentucky that was to have been paid for by a furniture company selling desks to the court. The trip was quashed by Judge Edwin B. Browning Jr. after he learned of it from the court's marshal. Hawkes said the trip was never taken and thus no misconduct occurred.
And Hawkes objects to charges surrounding a bottle of vinegar.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission questioned his "coercive and intimidating leadership style" with the court's marshal and his attempts to force a deputy marshal to run personal errands such as buying vinegar to clean his coffee pot.
The commission's charge serves no purpose except to imply that the judge was being "obstreperous or high-handed" by asking for vinegar, Hawkes says.
The charge that he destroyed public records should be dismissed Hawkes argues because records are destroyed every day in the course of business without violating the law. No official has an obligation to keep a record forever, and the charges do not identify specific records that should have been retained, he says.
Allegations that he used his law clerk to help his son prepare briefs for a case that had been decided by the court should also be tossed, Hawkes contends.
The case involved a lawsuit over legal fees charged by lawyers representing death row defendants. Hawkes' son, Jeremiah, was general counsel for House Speaker Marco Rubio and participated in the case. The Judicial Qualifications Commission contends it was illegal for Hawkes to use a law clerk to help on the case. Hawkes contends it was appropriate because he was a member of the commission that oversees death row cases and that he was further covered by having recused himself from the case when it was heard by the 1st District Court of Appeal.
Unless the Judicial Qualifications Commission dismisses the charges, Hawkes will be tried before a panel of commissioners. If Hawkes is found guilty, the commission can recommend disciplinary action to the Florida Supreme Court, which has the authority to impose a penalty or remove him.
Hawkes is represented by former U.S. Attorney Ken Sukhia of Tallahassee. Clearwater lawyer F. Wallace Pope Jr. has been retained by the commission as a special prosecutor.