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Daniel Ruth

Selling out justice for a big-screen TV

Who would ever have supposed that the fetid cesspool of cronyism, good ol' boyism and classic condescending elitism that is Tallahassee would find at its very wellhead a bunch of imperious judges who traded in their robes for … 60-inch flat-screen television sets? • Our judicial system is far from perfect. Judges make mistakes sometimes. We don't always agree with every court decision.

But for all its shortcomings, when people plead a case before a judge there is a reasonable expectation of fundamental fairness. And we most certainly expect that if a ruling doesn't go the way we want, at least it is grounded in some legal principle rather than in the fact that the folks wielding the power were more in bed with the other side than Madonna going on tour with the 6th Fleet.

It was bad enough that a powerful corporation regarded the mostly poor and mostly black residents of Millview as serfs. By the time the 1st District Court of Appeal got through with these folks they had been transformed into saps, enshrouded by chumps, enveloped by dupes.

Millview sat in the shadow of a St. Joe Co. paper mill and for years had been treated as the company's toilet as the land beneath the residents' modest homes began to crumble and their well water became contaminated by the mill's waste.

But these folks were nobodies, hardly worth St. Joe's time or money to clean up the mess — until a circuit court judge approved consolidating the residents into a class action against the company.

St. Joe could have just fessed up and paid up for their role in creating a Panhandle version of Chernobyl. Given the very deep pockets of the company, the cost of making things right with Millview would have probably been less than the going rate for a judge or two.

But why bother doing the right thing when you have friends in high places — high benches?

St. Joe appealed the lower court decision and before you could say ipso facto, things started going the corporation's way.

As fate would have it, as St. Joe was appealing the Millview decision the 1st District Court of Appeal concluded a really spiffy location for its brand, spanking, stinking new, Taj MaTammany Hall courthouse to be located — ta-dah — in a development called Southwood, which coincidentally happened to be developed by (you won't believe this) the St. Joe Co.

In fact, 1st DCA Judge Paul Hawkes, who was one of three judges presiding over the Millview case, was also the proud owner of a $500,000 home in Southwood. Hawkes wrote the opinion overturning the lower court, throwing out the class-action status of the plaintiffs and ruling that each one of the Millview residents would have to file an individual claim against the company, a massive legal obstacle for the financially strapped home owners.

Just like that, a nearly six-year court fight pitting a bunch of little guys against a massive corporation went … poof!

But this tawdry tale of jurisprudential three-card monte only gets smarmier.

As reported by the Times' Lucy Morgan, when contract issues arose with the St. Joe Co. property as the snazzy courthouse was being planned, Hawkes' law clerk noted the judge would "work with his St. Joe contacts" to resolve the problems.

Later that same day Hawkes e-mailed Chris Corr, then a St. Joe executive and former state legislator who had once served with the judge in the Florida House. The judge also used Corr as a reference when Hawkes sought an appointment to the court.

It's just a wild guess, but do you think there may be some conflict of interest going on here? Sorta makes you wonder if Hawkes received his legal training at Larry's Law School and Small Engine Repair.

You don't need to be a Louis Brandeis-esque legal scholar to figure out that in the midst of an appeal which involved a company knee-deep in doing business with the court, not to mention Hawkes' prior political association and friendship with one of St. Joe's executives, this case called for a wholesale recusal of the 1st DCA judges hearing the matter before them.

That's only right. It's only ethical. It's only … just.

Instead, the residents of Millview who expected to get a fair shake over the hearth and home were treated to a pretty fair-to-middlin' serving of home cooking.

Selling out justice for a big-screen TV 10/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 14, 2010 6:45pm]
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