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A Times Editorial

Courthouse deal riddled with ethical lapses

Judge Paul Hawkes

Judge Paul Hawkes

An appellate judge's obsession with building a palatial courthouse in Tallahassee looks more corrupt by the day. Paul Hawkes, the chief judge on the 1st District Court of Appeal, disgraced the judicial branch with his brazen lobbying and unethical conduct. The Judicial Qualifications Commission should investigate, and North Florida voters should remove Hawkes from office in November.

A series of reports by Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan recounts how Hawkes single-mindedly pursued a $48 million courthouse for himself and his fellow appellate judges without regard for judicial deportment or neutrality. Hawkes not only lobbied his friends in the Legislature for the money and pulled off a questionable last-minute deal in 2007. He ruled on a highly consequential case involving the St. Joe Co. while the court was negotiating to build the courthouse on public land that was formerly owned by St. Joe and could have been retaken by the company.

These ethical lapses and conflicts of interest are so blatant that any beginning lawyer could see them. Hawkes, a former Republican state representative and legislative staffer, never made the transformation from political hack to impartial judge.

The court case involves a group of mostly poor, mostly African-American property owners who sued St. Joe for allegedly dumping hazardous material from a paper mill on nearby land. The homeowners say they can't safely drink their well water, and some of their homes cracked as land shifted. These 75 property owners had won a key victory when a trial court in 2004 awarded them class-action status, making it economically feasible for their case against the company to proceed.

In July 2005, Hawkes was part of a three-judge panel that overturned the class-action. Since then, none of the homeowners has gone to trial. Their lawyers say the cost is prohibitive.

In March 2005, just before handing this big win to St. Joe, the 1st District Court proposed to the Florida Supreme Court that a new courthouse be built in Southwood, a St. Joe development, about 6 miles southeast of the Capitol.

The ties between St. Joe and Hawkes get even clearer in 2007 when meeting notes suggest that Hawkes agreed to "work his St. Joe contacts" to address height restrictions that the planned courthouse would violate. And St. Joe's cooperation was needed on waiving a clause that would have had the land revert back to St. Joe if construction didn't begin by the start of 2008.

When Hawkes decided to use his political connections to build his "Taj Mahal," he abandoned his judicial independence. The Judicial Qualifications Commission needs to investigate, and the Legislature needs to re-examine the way potential judges are screened.

Hawkes became an appellate court judge after the Republican-controlled Legislature handed then-Gov. Jeb Bush complete control of appointments to the state's Judicial Nominating Commissions. By politicizing the JNCs as Bush did, the nominees for judicial openings started to include Republican party loyalists with relatively weak legal qualifications — like Paul Hawkes.

North Florida voters living within the jurisdiction of the 1st District Court have the opportunity in November to oust Hawkes through a merit retention vote. In the worst poll showing ever recorded by the Florida Bar for an appellate judge, more than half of those Florida attorneys who know Hawkes say he shouldn't be retained. Let his sprawling courthouse be a tangible reminder that judicial misconduct has serious consequences.

Courthouse deal riddled with ethical lapses 10/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 1:12am]
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