TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court has turned down an appeal from 75 mostly poor African-American property owners of polluted land in Port St. Joe whose fight became linked to the "Taj Mahal" building scandal.
In 2003, the landowners in the Millview community sued the St. Joe Co., saying its defunct paper mill had dumped toxic waste on their property, and a year later they got a judge to combine their complaints into a single class-action lawsuit.
That made it economically feasible for the plaintiff's lawyers, working on contingency, to pursue the case against the deep pockets of the St. Joe Co.
In 2005, the St. Joe Co. asked the 1st District Court of Appeal to reverse the lower court's ruling on the class action.
After St. Joe filed its appeal — but not disclosed at the time — the 1st District Court proposed building a new courthouse in a St. Joe development called Southwood, on land acquired from St. Joe, and appeals court Judge Paul Hawkes purchased a half-million-dollar home in Southwood.
A three-judge panel of the court, including Hawkes, heard St. Joe's appeal and overturned the crucial ruling that the trial judge had made in favor of the Millview residents.
The Millview side didn't find out about the court's land dealings with St. Joe until five years later, when the St. Petersburg Times published stories about the opulent new courthouse since dubbed the Taj Mahal. In that time, not a single one of the Millview lawsuits has gone to trial.
Robert G. Kerrigan, head of one of three law firms representing the Millview families, asked the state Supreme Court to send the class-action issue to a different appeals court.
Late Wednesday, without the usual public notice, the Supreme Court turned down that request, saying it lacks jurisdiction. That means the Millview residents' claims will be handled individually.
Despite the setback, Kerrigan vowed to fight on.
"If we have to, we will try them all," Kerrigan said Friday.
In something of an irony, the Supreme Court, a day after rejecting Kerrigan's appeal, bestowed upon him the state's highest legal honor, the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award.
In a ceremony where lawyers who have volunteered their time received various awards, the court praised Kerrigan for his work in human rights cases, the help he gave to victims of Hurricane Ivan and a lifetime of philanthropy.
The court did not announce the St. Joe decision until a St. Petersburg Times reporter asked about the case Friday.
Other awards handed out by the Supreme Court on Thursday included a Distinguished Judicial Service Award for Hillsborough Circuit Judge Susan G. Sexton for her work in probate, guardianship and mental health cases.
Lawyers Murray Bruce Silverstein of St. Petersburg and Rosemary E. Armstrong and Rachel May Zysk, both of Tampa, were also honored for the hours they have donated to those in need of legal help.