TALLAHASSEE — Facing the threat of term limits, Florida's appellate court judges will beef up their presence in the Capitol by hiring a lobbyist with strong political connections and a controversial past.
The judges hired a former colleague, Paul Hawkes, who resigned an appellate judicial position in 2011 to avoid a trial and possible removal from office over his role in the construction of a lavish new courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeal known as the Taj Mahal that was widely criticized for its opulence.
After leaving the bench, Hawkes became a lobbyist.
"Paul is uniquely situated to speak authoritatively on our issues in the Legislature, and that's why we hired him," said Clay Roberts, a judge on the First DCA who serves as president of a statewide conference of appeals court judges. "He's an honorable man and an intelligent man. He knows what we do and he will represent us well."
Hawkes, 58, was a two-term Republican House member from Citrus County and a top adviser to two speakers of the House before former Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him to the bench in 2003.
In the halls of the state Capitol, Hawkes provides another asset: He's personally and professionally close to Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, the incoming speaker who supports limiting appeals court judges to 12 years on the bench.
"Richard is my absolute best friend," Hawkes said.
Back in 1990, the young and ambitious Corcoran, then headed to law school, became a legislative aide to Hawkes, a Crystal River lawyer who pulled an upset that year and defeated former Rep. Dick Locke of Inverness.
The two men stayed close through the years and Hawkes was chief judge of the 1st DCA while Corcoran was chief of staff to then-Speaker Marco Rubio. Corcoran said Wednesday he left Rubio's staff before the pivotal private decisions were made in the 2007 session to build the courthouse with its 60-inch TVs, 35 foot columns and personal bathrooms and kitchens for all 15 judges.
Roberts said Hawkes was hired for two missions. He will fight a proposal to limit appeals court judges to two six-year terms on the bench, and will seek better pay and benefits for employees in five courts of appeal that review lower court decisions in Miami, West Palm Beach, Daytona Beach, Lakeland and Tallahassee.
Hawkes was hired Dec. 8 for six months of work with "an emphasis on matters concerning the betterment of the judicial system of the state," according to his contract.
He is being paid $30,000 from the Florida Bar, which is funded largely by dues paid by lawyers. A two-page contract calls for Hawkes to be paid $20,000 immediately with the remaining $10,000 payable by March 15, 2016.
Roberts said term limits for judges would worsen a growing problem in which fewer successful attorneys in private practice seek careers on the bench because of the pay.
District Court of Appeal judges are paid $154,140 a year in Florida. That's much less than in other large states, and far less than many lawyers earn at top-flight firms.
Even with Corcoran's backing, the judicial term limits bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, faces a steep uphill climb.
It passed its first hurdle in November by a vote of 8 to 5, which is never a good sign, and will have trouble getting the necessary three-fifths majorities in the House and Senate, a requirement for any proposed constitutional amendment.
The Senate version (SB 322), by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, has been sent to the Judiciary Committee, headed by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami.
"We probably have more support in the Senate than we do in the House right now," Hawkes said.
Even if the bill were to muster enough votes, it would also need the support of 60 percent of Florida voters in the 2016 statewide election. It would apply only to future judges, not those already on the bench.
For Hawkes personally and for the court system generally, the fallout from the Taj Mahal controversy was intense.
Former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink ordered an audit of the project after the Tampa Bay Times reported the details of how it ballooned from a modest $20,000 floor addition to a grandiose $50 million, paid with a 30-year bonds, during the 2007 session of the Legislature.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission ordered a full investigation of Hawkes' conduct, including allegations that he destroyed records.
Hawkes resigned and told the Times/Herald this week that he did nothing wrong and that the public perception of the courthouse as overly ostentatious was a result of the global economic collapse in 2008.
"There was nothing about the project that was wrong," Hawkes said. "The courthouse was meant to be nice, but it was not over the top."
At one point, Supreme Court Justice Charles Canady publicly criticized the decisions by Hawkes and others and ordered all future courthouse projects to undergo stricter scrutiny.
Canady, who reportedly pressured Hawkes to resign his judgeship, said the judges' hiring of Hawkes as a lobbyist was the right call.
"My personal view is that the conference has made a good choice, and I believe Paul Hawkes will be a very effective advocate," Canady said in a statement.
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263 or follow him @stevebousquet.
An earlier online version included an inaccurate reference to lifetime appellate court positions.