'Taj Mahal' courthouse barges into a different case

TALLAHASSEE — Lawyers for a Lakeland firefighter filed a motion Wednesday asking that two judges on the 1st District Court of Appeal step aside because the opposing lawyer was among the "heroes" who helped the court get the money for a grand new courthouse.

Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, was opposing counsel in the workers' compensation case and appeared before a panel of judges that included 1st District Judges Paul M. Hawkes and James Wolf.

Both judges are members of the court's building committee and were among those asked to send thank-you letters to Ross and others deemed to be "heroes" in helping the court get money for a $48 million courthouse and $981,000 for a new workers' compensation staff at the court.

Maitland lawyer Geoffrey Bichler wants the court to reconsider its denial of benefits for David Bivens, a firefighter who sought compensation for hypertension and heart catheterization tests performed in 2005.

Bichler's motion states that Ross and Hawkes never disclosed the relationship and Ross' role in securing money for the court. Oral arguments in the case were held Aug. 19, 2008, a few months after the judges declared Ross a "hero."

"Judge Hawkes should recuse himself … because of the appearance of impropriety and the likelihood or potential of bias," Bichler's motion said. "… a reasonable person would believe that Judge Hawkes would be unable to decide the instant case fairly."

Because Wolf was among the judges who received Hawkes' memo declaring Ross a hero, Bichler said, Wolf also should step aside.

"It's up to the court to decide what to do,'' Ross said Thursday. "It's an unusual motion, but lawyers zealously represent their clients.''

Ross said he doesn't know what he did to be declared a hero by the judges because he was stripped of his chairmanship in a dispute with House Speaker Marco Rubio before the judges got the money for the new courthouse.

"This is coming from a police union lawyer,'' said Ross, who is now running for Congress. "It's just another attempt to impugn my integrity in the middle of a campaign.''

In his motion, Bichler said he became aware of the circumstances involving the two judges after reading a St. Petersburg Times story about the "heroes" who helped get funding for the courthouse.

He said the order the 1st District issued in the Bivens case contradicted decisions in similar cases that allowed compensation for workers with "essential hypertension."

His motion notes that the Code of Judicial Conduct requires a judge to step aside when he has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or a party's lawyer or a reasonable person would question a judge's ability to decide a case fairly.

Bichler asked how a reasonable person could consider it fair for judges to decide a workers' compensation case in which they have called the opposing lawyer a "hero" for helping get them nearly $1 million for a new workers' compensation staff.

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

'Taj Mahal' courthouse barges into a different case 10/20/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 21, 2010 1:17pm]

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