TALLAHASSEE — Lawyers for 75 property owners fighting the St. Joe Co. over paper mill waste dumped on their land asked the Florida Supreme Court on Friday to set aside a 1st District Court of Appeal decision against them.
The petition says Judge Paul M. Hawkes, who wrote the decision, should have disqualified himself from hearing the case or at least disclosed his potential conflict of interest: He was the driving force behind the effort to build a new courthouse for the appellate court and needed concessions from St. Joe to build it at Southwood, a St. Joe development.
"Any reasonable person should have known that recusal was called for," attorney Robert C. Kerrigan wrote in the petition. "Disclosure was clearly required in this case.
"Had the information about the court's relationship with St. Joe (and certainly Judge Hawkes' relationship) been disclosed, the petitioners would have promptly, though respectfully, requested the entire court to recuse so that disinterested judges from another district could decide the fate of the company that would decide whether the courthouse could be built in Southwood."
Officials at the district court said late Friday that they had not received a copy of the petition and could not comment.
The residents and their lawyers didn't learn of the relationship between the company and the 1st DCA judges until August, Kerrigan wrote, from articles about the opulent new courthouse published in the St. Petersburg Times.
Nearing completion in Southwood, about 6 miles east of the state Capitol, the courthouse has been dubbed the "Taj Mahal" or "Taj MaHawkes" by critics who contend that in tough economic times, there is no place for a $48 million state building with granite countertops, miles of African mahogany and personal bathrooms and kitchens for the judges.
Kerrigan's petition says Hawkes also should have disclosed that he had moved to Southwood and that he had a personal relationship with Chris Corr, a St. Joe vice president who served as a reference for Hawkes when Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him to the court in 2003. Hawkes became the court's point person on courthouse negotiations conducted directly with Corr, the petition states.
The residents of Millview contend that pollution from the old St. Joe paper mill, including lead, arsenic and mercury, are in the soil and in the groundwater of their neighborhood.
A circuit judge had agreed to let the residents consolidate their lawsuits into a class action. But in 2005, a three-judge panel of the 1st DCA, led by Hawkes, overturned the decision and said the cases had to be filed individually.
Now Kerrigan wants the Supreme Court to set aside that ruling and let judges from another of the state's appellate courts hear the case.
"Petitioners do not intend in any way to cast aspersions on the character of any judge on the court," Kerrigan wrote. "But it is clear that there has been a breakdown when it comes to that court's dealings with the new courthouse project planning and construction, and that Judge Hawkes was a key player who exercised an unusual level of control."
The residents of Millview, he wrote, are entitled to the "cold neutrality an impartial judge."