Champion of Florida's palatial court once preached frugality

Judges Paul Hawkes, left, and Brad Thomas, right, pose with Rep. Marti Coley during a tour of courthouse construction last December. The judges have personalized hard hats.

Courtesy of 1st District Court of Appeal

Judges Paul Hawkes, left, and Brad Thomas, right, pose with Rep. Marti Coley during a tour of courthouse construction last December. The judges have personalized hard hats.

TALLAHASSEE — Four times Paul M. Hawkes tried to become a judge, four times without success.

Voters rejected him the first time, and he dropped out of a second race. Twice he applied for gubernatorial appointments, twice he was rejected by the nominating committees that cull applicants and send the governor the finalists to pick from.

Success came on the fifth try, after then-Gov. Jeb Bush gained control of the nominating process. Bush picked Hawkes, a policy adviser in the Republican-controlled House, over five other nominees, including three judges.

On his application Hawkes wrote: "A judge should be accountable to the public as a fiscal steward. A judge should not utilize practices that may be more convenient but would violate the stewardship responsibilities of the court.''

The "fiscal steward'' then set out to build what is now derided as the "Taj MaHawkes,'' a monument to profligate spending, with no taxpayer dollar spared, a courthouse outfitted with 20 miles of African mahogany, etched glass and, for each judge, a private kitchen and bathroom.

It is a hallmark of Hawkes' career, dating to his days in the Legislature 20 years ago: He preached belt-tightening, safeguarding every tax dollar, but once appointed a judge, all bets were off.

• • •

Hawkes lost his first bid for the Florida House in 1988, to Dick Locke of Inverness, but won a rematch two years later.

During their first race, Hawkes sued Locke and the House over Locke's refusal to produce office financial records. The case had not been resolved when Hawkes won two years later, putting him in the awkward position of joining the very office he was suing.

Hawkes lost the case; the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the open records law governing public officials did not cover legislative records. The ruling prompted a constitutional amendment that made some legislative records public.

Hawkes made his reputation as a fiscal conservative looking to cut wasteful spending. In 1992, he produced his own version of the state budget, a "priority budget'' he called it, an alternative to Gov. Lawton Chiles' "reality budget.''

Hawkes wanted to add money for 50 new judges statewide and preserve financing for education and social services. But he wanted to eliminate 4,000 state jobs, mostly in Tallahassee offices, and cut travel and dozens of other expenses.

"There is not a single cut in there that I feel would hurt the state of Florida from a policy standpoint,'' Hawkes said.

A freshman Republican in the Democrat-controlled House, Hawkes and his budget had no prayer.

Republicans made steady gains, but had yet to become a majority in the House when Hawkes was re-elected in 1992.

Again he preached fiscal conservatism, proposing to scrap the workers' compensation system, limit employer liability to $25,000 plus lost wages, and require workers to help pay for the system. The proposal did not pass.

He left the Legislature in 1994 to run for circuit judge in his Central Florida district. He lost to Lake County Judge William G. Law. Two years later he announced plans to run again but dropped out before qualifying.

The November elections that year brought Republican control of the House, and Hawkes' old friend, Daniel Webster, became the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction. Hawkes became a behind-the-scenes adviser.

Webster hired him and his former aide, Richard Corcoran, owner of Creative Mail Services, to produce member newsletters. Webster appointed Hawkes to the 1998 Constitutional Revision Commission.

In 1999, Hawkes applied for appointment to an open judgeship in Central Florida. The nominating committee did not send his name to the governor.

Republicans in high places hired him. He worked eight months as deputy director of Gov. Jeb Bush's budget office, and then House Speaker Tom Feeney named him his chief of policy and special counsel.

Hawkes was serving in that role when legislators changed the way judges are appointed. It gave Gov. Bush the right to name all members of Judicial Nominating Commissions, giving him much more say in who would become a judge. In the past, some members of the commissions were selected by the Florida Bar.

Feeney appointed Hawkes to represent the House at a revenue estimating conference, a domain normally occupied by fiscal and economic experts.

"It sounds to me like they are looking for a political decision, not a fiscal one,'' Sen. Jack Latvala, a Palm Harbor Republican, complained of Hawkes' appointment.

Hawkes made his fourth try for a judgeship in August 2001, applying for an open circuit judge position in Tallahassee. He did not get the job.

A seat came open on the 1st District Court of Appeal in late 2002. The references on Hawkes' application included three former House speakers (Feeney, John Thrasher and James Harold Thompson); a former president of the Florida Bar (Terry Russell); a vice president of St. Joe Co. (Chris Corr); Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee; two circuit judges; and Anne Corcoran, wife of Hawkes' former aide, Richard Corcoran.

By then, the impact of the new law giving Bush more say in the selection of judges was being felt.

And for Hawkes, the fifth time would be the charm.

• • •

Having never been a judge, landing on the 1st District Court of Appeal was big. The court not only hears appeals from 32 counties from Pensacola to Jacksonville, more territory than Florida's four other district courts, it hears most appeals involving the state and all workers' compensation cases.

When Marco Rubio took over as speaker in 2006, he hired Hawkes' former aide, Corcoran, as his chief of staff, and Hawkes' son, Jeremiah, as general counsel. Hawkes, who had become a judge by then, helped the House rewrite its rules.

By tradition on the appeal court, the position of chief judge rotated by seniority, but Hawkes wanted the job.

The election for the chief judge to take over in 2009 divided the court, literally and figuratively. Hawkes challenged Judge Peter D. Webster, who was next in line by seniority. The initial vote was 7-7; Hawkes won the revote.

He called the election "a healthy thing.'' Other judges called the politicking "unseemly.''

Longtime observers say the 1st District's lack of collegiality is so bad that some judges won't go to lunch together.

At the ceremony when Hawkes took over as chief judge, he accepted the crown that is part of a long-running joke at the court.

Retiring Chief Judge Edwin B. Browning remembers handing over the crown and mangling the Shakespeare quote, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.''

Little did he know.

• • •

By the time Hawkes became chief judge, he and fellow 1st DCA Judge Brad Thomas had worked several years to get a new courthouse.

Both judges were appointed by Bush. Both were former legislative aides who knew how to work the back rooms and had worked with lawmakers in key positions. Both were comfortable lobbying.

In 2005, lawmakers approved $100,000 for a study of how to accommodate the growth of the court, and $1.8 million in 2006. Gov. Bush threatened to veto the latter appropriation unless the court took a step back from building a new courthouse and explored expanding the existing building.

The judges agreed to do that, but instead they spent the money on architectural and engineering fees for a new building at Southwood, about 6 miles east of the Capitol, where Hawkes had purchased a home.

The next year they requested $31.7 million, but with the state budget so tight they ratcheted back the request to $24 million. Lawmakers gave them only $7.9 million but authorized a $33.5 million bond issue, which was tucked inside an unrelated transportation bill passed on the hectic last day of the session.

As chairman of the courthouse building committee, Hawkes visited the construction site so often he has a personalized hard hat. No detail was too small for his attention: color selection, picking the right chair or doorknob, even the pegs in the robing room.

On Aug. 9, 2010, after the St. Petersburg Times exposed the building's over-the-top amenities at a time other courts were slashing jobs and cutting corners, 1st DCA Judge James Wolf e-mailed his fellow judges that Hawkes and Thomas "deserve our support.''

"While we may not agree with everything that is going into the new courthouse, Paul and Brad have worked tirelessly for the benefit of the court. I want them to know that the court appreciates their efforts.''

In a seven-page letter defending the amenities, Hawkes said the 60-inch flat screens for each judge were not TVs at all, they were just video monitors: "There is no equipment to receive cable or satellite signals in the new courthouse, nor are there any plans for any.''

An e-mail two months prior said otherwise. Responding to a request from Hawkes, a Comcast Cable official wrote that it would cost the court $211 a month for "full basic cable.'' Internal documents indicated the court planned to purchase "Sharp Aquos flat panel TVs,'' equipped for high definition.

Hawkes declined to explain how to reconcile his memo with the documents. He has refused to respond to recent questions from the Times.

His memo said he and other judges did nothing improper.

"Not only are judges allowed by the code of judicial conduct to advocate for what they think will make the system better," Hawkes wrote, "… it is counterintuitive to prohibit those most familiar with the needs of the court system from advocating on its behalf.''

Other judges who frequently appear before legislative committees say Hawkes' approach to lobbying was different, frequently circumventing the overall needs of the courts.

Hawkes and Thomas are among those who "lobby outside the fold,'' said 2nd District Court of Appeal Judge Stevan Northcutt. "Our relations with Hawkes and Thomas weren't all that well coordinated — sometimes their relationship was helpful to the system, at other times they were working their own issues.''

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-Port Richey, says he has known Hawkes for decades, dating to 1990, when he first won a seat in the Legislature.

"It disturbs me that the same individual who lobbied for the Taj Mahal and its TVs, mahogany and gymnasium is the one who advocated cutting budgets and reducing government and was critical of those in the Legislature for not coming forth with a fiscally responsible budget,'' Fasano said.

"It's a bit hypocritical to go from wanting less government, lower taxes and a more fiscally sound state budget, but you move to another branch of government and start spending money without any care or concern about whose dollars those are.''

Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

.FAST FACTS

Paul M. Hawkes

Age: 53

Education: University of South Florida, B.S., political science; Florida State University, J.D.

Family: Wife, Leslie, and five sons

Professional experience: Assistant state attorney, 5th Judicial Circuit, 1986-1988; member of Florida House, 1990-94; Constitutional Revision Commission, 1997/98; Office of Policy & Budget, Executive Office of Gov. Jeb Bush, 2000; chief of policy, Florida House, 2000-02. Appointed to 1st District Court of Appeal by Gov. Bush, Jan. 2, 2003.

Champion of Florida's palatial court once preached frugality 10/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 23, 2010 8:17pm]

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