PAUL HAWKES' ABRUPT RESIGNATION as chief judge of the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee is a positive development, but it should not silence questions about his abuse of his position to win approval for an opulent new courthouse. The Judicial Qualifications Commission, which has the power to discipline or remove judges, should proceed with a vigorous investigation. Separately, state Sen. Mike Fasano's call for legislative hearings on how the $48 million courthouse received funding should be embraced by his colleagues and the judiciary.
Hawkes' sudden decision last week to give up the position of chief judge during an emergency private meeting with his fellow judges raises more questions than it answers. He may have been responding to a request from Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady, who would not confirm or deny reports that he asked for the resignation. Or Hawkes could be trying to short-circuit the JQC investigation and save his spot on the appellate court. That is a self-serving strategy that does not restore the court's tarnished reputation and should not be allowed to succeed.
There is no indication Hawkes has any remorse for his relentless pursuit of such an ostentatious courthouse at a time of declining state revenue, his heavy-handed lobbying of the Legislature for funding, or the damage he has done to the reputation of the state's court system. His written explanation of how the project evolved does not match public records or the recollection of others. His most extensive public comments, to editors of the Tallahassee Democrat in October, amounted to a full-court defense of his actions and of a building so lavish and out of scale it is derided as the "Taj Mahal." Hawkes has not given an inch on the flat-screen televisions, granite counters and miles of African mahogany.
The JQC has several avenues to pursue. Among them:
• Lobbying legislators and pressuring state officials. Hawkes, a former Republican legislator and top aide, was the driving force in pushing lawmakers to scrape up the money for the courthouse. Those tactics included a curious authorization of a $33.5 million bond issue in an unrelated bill approved on the last day of the 2007 session. Hawkes and others on the court then bullied the Department of Management Services so they could micromanage every detail of construction.
• Failing to disclose a conflict of interest. Hawkes ruled on an important 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. Lawyers for 75 property owners who lost that case asked the Florida Supreme Court on Friday to set aside the decision. They reasonably argue Hawkes should have disqualified himself from hearing the case or disclosed his potential conflict of interest. Hawkes denies there was a conflict.
• Free trips. Hawkes and two fellow judges took a free trip in 2008 on a private jet paid for by the courthouse construction manager to see the Michigan Supreme Court, which served as a model for the new appellate court in Tallahassee. Court officials say Hawkes also tried to arrange a free trip to Louisville, Ky., to visit a furniture manufacturer and Churchill Downs but was told he could not go by the then-chief judge. Hawkes says he "never even thought about" going on such a trip.
Amid these serious concerns, giving up his position as chief judge was the least Hawkes could do. But that should not be the end of the story. There is plenty for the JQC and the Legislature to investigate, and they should not be sidetracked by Hawkes' effort to save his job.