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A Times Editorial

Conduct unworthy of court

First District Court of Appeal Judge Paul Hawkes answered questions on the courthouse this month.

COLIN HACKLEY | Special to the Times

First District Court of Appeal Judge Paul Hawkes answered questions on the courthouse this month.

If the Judicial Qualifications Commission is looking for one clear moment of conduct unbecoming a judge, it could look at 1st District Court of Appeal Judge Paul Hawkes' inaccurate account to a Senate committee this month of his pursuit of the "Taj Mahal" courthouse. His sorry performance is also a reminder of the price Floridians are paying for a politicized judiciary.

Hawkes sits on Florida's second most powerful bench and is expected to act with the integrity and candor of judges who effectively have lifetime appointments (since voters always vote to retain them). Yet in at least three instances before the Senate committee, Hawkes tried to deflect blame from himself for the lavish Tallahassee courthouse with misleading answers:

Hawkes claimed the construction manager pushed to take judges on a second trip to visit the Michigan Supreme Court, the model for the Tallahassee edifice. Records show the construction company questioned the legality of the trip and paid for it only after a state agency and Hawkes' court refused to pick up the tab.

Hawkes claimed the committee he was appearing before — the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee — had approved the first-of-its-kind bond measure needed to build the courthouse. In fact, no legislative committee heard the issue; it was quietly added to unrelated legislation in the waning hours of the 2007 session.

Hawkes miscast the role of former Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed him to the bench. He claimed Bush pushed for the new building in 2006. That's not true, according to Bush and public records. Bush wanted to pursue renovating the existing courthouse rather than build a new one.

Apparently, Hawkes has no fear about spinning a version of events that is at odds with the facts. Indeed, 1st District voters returned him to the bench for at least another six years in November, even after St. Petersburg Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan reported how he and other judges pursued the new building and demanded such amenities as private kitchens and soundproof bathrooms. But Hawkes and his colleagues didn't act alone. They had help from legislators — including new U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and new Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist — and the state Department of Management Services, which acquiesced to many of their demands.

Bush's hands are not clean, either. It was during his tenure in 2001 that the Legislature, where Hawkes was then working for the House Policy Committee, made the selection of judges a de facto patronage arrangement and abandoned a nonpartisan nomination process. Now the governor completely controls the nominating committees and thus the list of nominations from which he appoints judges. The result is too often predictable: Political insiders like Hawkes who are not the best qualified are named to the bench.

Now Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady is promising that all future appellate court construction projects will be reviewed by the state court administrator. And he has talked about limiting judges' lobbying efforts. But most obvious in all of this — particularly after Hawkes' performance before senators — is that Hawkes still does not feel compelled to tell the truth. The Judicial Qualifications Commission, now investigating this mess, should take note. Dishonesty is not acceptable in a judge, and Hawkes should be removed.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Judge Paul Hawkes appeared before the Florida Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee earlier this month to answer questions about the 1st District Court of Appeal courthouse. A Sunday editorial referred to the incorrect committee.

Conduct unworthy of court 01/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 10:59am]
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