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In 'Taj Mahal' tale, questions raised in judicial ruling

TALLAHASSEE

When the 1st District Court of Appeal started negotiating to build the courthouse that would come to be derided as the Taj Mahal, the St. Joe Co. was in an important legal battle before the same court.

St. Joe, former owner of the land the new courthouse would be built on, was fighting a class-action lawsuit by 75 mostly poor, mostly African-American property owners who lived in Millview.

The town was what the name suggests, within view of the smoke-belching paper mill St. Joe opened in Port St. Joe in 1938. The mill closed in 1998, two years after St. Joe sold it.

Some Millview residents fought to save houses that were cracking and crumbling as the land beneath them shifted. Others just wanted a house where they could safely use well water and have a garden. Their lawsuit seeks compensation for the land and modest homes built over the years St. Joe dumped waste on the property.

After the residents won a crucial ruling in their lawsuit against St. Joe, the company appealed to the 1st District Court of Appeal. Unbeknownst to the Millview families and their lawyers, the court they were relying on for justice was working with the very company they were fighting.

After St. Joe appealed to the court:

• In a letter to the Florida Supreme Court, the 1st District Court of Appeal proposed building a new courthouse in a St. Joe development called Southwood, on land acquired from St. Joe.

• Appeal 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 the trial judge had made in favor of the Millview residents.

Nobody disclosed that the very court that issued the ruling was doing business with the company on the other side of the case. The Millview side didn't find out until five years later, when the St. Petersburg Times published stories about the opulent new courthouse.

"It's just an outrage against voiceless people,'' said Robert G. Kerrigan, head of one of three law firms representing the Millview families.

"My clients, like all litigants, deserved a fair, impartial judge. Instead they got a buddy of the St. Joe Company. That fact, undisclosed by him, suggests he is unfit for the bench.''

Hawkes has not returned messages seeking comment since the first Times story about what some belittle as the "Taj MaHawkes,'' and he did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

"The St. Joe Company holds itself to the highest standards of ethical conduct,'' Liz Pierce, St. Joe's vice president of corporate marketing, said in a statement. "We support the decision by the appellate court in this matter. The ruling was based on sound legal grounds and made by a panel of three judges.''

• • •

For more than 20 years, the St. Joe Paper Mill spewed sulfurous exhaust, and the company dumped mill waste on wetlands it owned at Port St. Joe.

The company sold the land to poor African-American mill workers who built small homes in Millview, a half-mile from the mill. Also known as "the quarters,'' it was the only neighborhood available to black families in the segregated city of Port St. Joe.

Several plaintiffs in the lawsuit were children in the 1940s and remember watching trucks from the paper mill dump loads of pine bark, ash, salt cake and other substances on land near their homes. Kids played on the mounds of waste that allegedly included arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, PCBs and other toxic waste.

In 2003, three Panhandle law firms joined forces and filed suit against the St. Joe Co., one of Florida's largest landowners and politically powerful companies. St. Joe denied that the substances deposited at Millview were hazardous.

With the cost of depositions and experts, it can cost a small fortune to prosecute a lawsuit. A tried-and-true method for deep-pocketed companies is to string a case along until the other side can't afford to stay in the fight.

Trying the Millview cases one at a time would be a loser for the plaintiffs. Their best hope was to consolidate their cases as a class action. In November 2004, Gulf County Circuit Judge Judy Pitt­man approved doing that. On Dec. 14, 2004, St. Joe appealed the ruling to the 1st District Court of Appeal

• • •

The 1st District Court, with 15 judges, is the state's largest. It hears appeals of civil and criminal cases from Jacksonville to Pensacola, as well as most appeals involving the state and all workers' compensation cases.

Running out of space in its building in downtown Tallahassee, 1st District Court Chief Judge James Wolf wrote to the Florida Supreme Court on March 4, 2005, proposing construction of a new home for the appeal court at Southwood, about 6 miles southeast of the Capitol.

Later that month Wolf wrote to legislative budget staffers that they needed to speed up construction to avoid losing the Southwood land. When the state acquired the land from St. Joe in 1999, it included a "reverter clause'' that said the company would take back ownership if construction of a state building did not begin before Jan. 1, 2008.

As the court focused on moving to Southwood, 1st District Court Judge Hawkes closed on a new home in the residential section of the same development. The seller was a private home builder. The deed, dated April 29, 2005, reflected a sales price of $549,000. Hawkes' mortgage was $439,100.

Two weeks later, May 17, 2005, Hawkes and two fellow judges heard oral arguments in St. Joe's appeal of the trial court order allowing the Millview class-action lawsuit.

On July 29, 2005, in an opinion written by Hawkes, the 1st District Court sided with St. Joe, a ruling upheld by the Florida Supreme Court under rules that restrict the number of appeals the higher court will accept. Millview residents would have to file one lawsuit at a time.

The ruling devastated the plaintiffs, many of them poor and elderly. Five years later, not a single case has gone to trial.

The lawyers for the Millview residents are working on contingency. Kerrigan estimates they have spent $1 million on expenses, with no end in sight.

"It would literally bankrupt the lawyers to try these cases individually,'' he said. "We have not been able to find an orderly way to go to trial. … St. Joe has benefited greatly by this.''

Tallahassee lawyer Tracy Moye represented seven homeowners whose houses were falling apart as the ground settled where St. Joe deposited pine bark near Millview. Settling the cases took six years, for amounts Moye said she's not allowed to disclose.

"They thought it was just me and seven poor families, and they thought I wouldn't make it to the end,'' Moye said.

Kerrigan said the plaintiff lawyers are exploring trying to get the case before the Florida Supreme Court in an extraordinary proceeding. "There is nothing to do but to go back and ask the court to consider the appearance of impropriety here.''

Internal 1st District Court e-mails and building committee minutes obtained from the court and the state Department of Management Services say the 1st District Court judges asked St. Joe officials to extend the reverter clause and to waive a height restriction on the new courthouse building at Southwood.

In the "court's notes'' taken during a meeting about the new building on May 23, 2007, Hawkes' law clerk noted that to get the variance, Hawkes "will work his St. Joe contacts.''

Later that day, Hawkes e-mailed other judges and said he had spoken with Chris Corr, St. Joe's chief strategy officer. Corr was a former legislator who served with Hawkes in the House in the early 1990s and on the Constitutional Revision Commission in 1997. Corr was also a reference for Hawkes when he sought appointment to the court in 2002.

Hawkes said St. Joe was doing some research "with the goal of getting to 'yes' on approving a four story design.'' The court later went with a three-story building over an enclosed basement parking area.

Last week, Corr said he recalled dealing with the reverter clause but did not remember any question about the height restriction. He now works for Aecom, an international provider of architectural and engineering services that is on the architectural team for the new courthouse. Corr said he is not involved in the project.

The 1st District Court also tried to influence the city of Tallahassee. In a report of a court meeting on June 20, 2007, court Judge Wolf suggested "perhaps we can elevate this to the level of the mayor's office or City Council so the city planning department would be more comfortable in working with us.''

• • •

The unusually close involvement of some 1st District Court judges in lobbying and personally negotiating with landowners and city planners has created apparent conflicts of interest related to several litigants that come before the appellate court, according to many lawyers and judges who said they are afraid to be named for fear of retaliation by the court.

"When these judges decided to be in essence their own contractors or contract consultants using their 'connections' to help build their courthouse, they put their judicial independence at risk,'' Kerrigan said.

"The city of Tallahassee, the St. Joe Company, possible subcontractors, state agencies like DEP and who knows who or what else may all have litigation on appeal before the court," he said.

"When Hawkes decided he was going to act like a lobbyist or a legislator and get down and dirty with the project, he failed to appreciate the need for judicial impartiality, balance and demeanor. Advancing what they wanted for themselves caused all involved to lose sight of the role of a judge and the high calling of uncompromised fairness that comes with the job.''

Edwin B. Browning Jr., chief judge at the 1st District Court until he retired in January 2009, defended the push to get a new courthouse but said he was uncomfortable with the lobbying by judges and some of the extras included in the new building.

"I guess every judge has to march to the beat of his own drum,'' Browning said. "Judge Hawkes doesn't see anything wrong with it, his conscience has to be his guide. There is nothing wrong with lobbying, but it's a little distasteful to me.''

Several legislators say Hawkes and Judge Brad Thomas have spent so much time lobbying the past few years they have wondered when they had time to work as judges. Both are former legislative staffers whom Gov. Jeb Bush appointed to the court.

The Times recently published a list of legislators the 1st District Court called "heroes'' for helping it get the money to build the new courthouse. One name jumped off the page to litigants and lawyers involved in workers' compensation cases: Rep. Dennis Ross.

A Lakeland Republican, Ross is an insurance lawyer who specializes in defending workers' comp cases. He said he can't recall what he did to help with the new courthouse, but he said he helped the 1st District Court get extra money to create a workers' compensation staff to help with cases.

Ross practices before the court, which handles all workers' compensation appeals in Florida.

When Lakeland fire inspector David Bivens lost his workers' comp case before the 1st District Court, Ross represented Bivens' employer.

Bivens was shocked to find Ross' name on the heroes list.

"I am really feeling uneasy about the way things have developed,'' Bivens said. "I plan on asking the court through my attorneys to have the honorable Judge Hawkes recuse himself and to file a complaint.''

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

Time line

Aug. 19, 2003: Property owners in Millview in Port St. Joe sue St. Joe Co., former owner of the defunct paper mill, saying it dumped waste on land near the mill for more than 20 years, polluting land and groundwater.

Nov. 9, 2004: Gulf County Circuit Judge Judy M. Pittman declares the Millview residents' lawsuit against St. Joe Co. a class action.

Dec. 14, 2004: St. Joe appeals the ruling to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

March 4, 2005: In a letter to the Florida Supreme Court, the 1st District Court proposes building a new courthouse in Southwood, a St. Joe development southeast of the Capitol. The state acquired the land in 1990 from St. Joe. The deed included a reverter clause, returning ownership to St. Joe if construction did not begin by Jan. 1, 2008.

April 29, 2005: 1st District Court Judge Paul M. Hawkes buys a new $549,000 house in Southwood. He secures a $439,100 mortgage.

May 17, 2005: A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court, including Hawkes, hears oral arguments in St. Joe's appeal of lower court order certifying class action for Millview residents.

July 29, 2005: In opinion written by Hawkes, the court reverses lower court decision and rules that Millview residents cannot combine their cases into a class-action lawsuit against St. Joe.

Jan. 20, 2006: State Department of Management Services recommends construction of 1st District Court courthouse on land obtained from St. Joe at Southwood.

April 2006: The court asked for $32 million for a new building, but Legislature budgets $1.8 million for expansion of existing building. Gov. Jeb Bush threatens veto unless the court seriously considers expansion.

May 2007: Legislature budgets $7.9 million for planning of new building and tucks approval for a $33.5 million bond issue into a transportation bill on final day of session.

May 23, 2007: Minutes of a meeting of the 1st District Court building committee with architects and others note Hawkes will "work his St. Joe contacts.'' Also that day, Hawkes e-mails court colleagues that he has talked to St. Joe official Chris Corr — a former legislator who served in the House with Hawkes — about getting height restrictions eased for the court building.

May 24, 2007: Hawkes reports to court colleagues on conversations with other St. Joe officials to get height restrictions waived.

June 20, 2007: At building committee meeting, 1st District Court Judge James Wolf suggests going over the heads of the city of Tallahassee planning department to the mayor or City Council to resolve planning differences.

In 'Taj Mahal' tale, questions raised in judicial ruling 10/08/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 9, 2010 7:00pm]

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