Judge defends ‘Taj Mahal’ courthouse, scores lowest ever rating in Florida Bar poll (Updated)
Chief Justice Paul Hawkes of Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals issued a seven-page letter Monday to newspaper editors around the state, responding to the flurry of criticism that has been leveled against the court’s new $48 million home in the state’s capital.
While he names the St. Petersburg Times as being responsible for much of the negative publicity surrounding the courthouse, his letter attempts to set the record straight about a slew of allegations involving political figures, including former House Speaker and Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio.
The letter attempts to defend the funding and construction processes involving the project, which is nearing completion, with Hawkes providing details that serve to demonstrate that funding for the building was no secret. He also offers his own account of why issues such as granite countertops and 60-inch flat-screen televisions are not the excessive luxury items described in recent articles on the now infamous “Taj Mahal” courthouse. The fact that the letter was written on official 1st DCA letterhead, which includes the names of all 15 judges associated with the building, was criticized by fellow judge Peter Webster, who contacted Hawkes directly before the letter was published:
“While I assume all of the factual representations made are accurate, I have no independent knowledge as to most of them. I’m most disturbed that this letter is apparently going out as a product of the entire court,” Webster wrote to Hawkes.
“I’m also concerned because the letter makes numerous representations regarding what the legislature, (Office of State Courts Administrator) and the supreme court knew when,” Webster wrote. “Assuming all of those representations to be true, I’m worried that, nevertheless, they will cause hard feelings and, potentially, retaliation on the part of one or more of those bodies.”
Some highlights from Hawkes’ letter:
- The courthouse project was not the result of a “backroom deal,” but was the result of an approval process that spanned from 2005 to 2008, and included at least one public committee meeting. Hawkes acknowledges that the bulk of the funding, some $33.5 million in bonds, was approved on the morning of the last day of the 2007 legislative session as a last-minute amendment to a transportation bill, but notes that the decision to bond the construction of the building had been made earlier in the year and as such should not have been a surprise.
- The granite countertops were selected for their long-term durability and low maintenance costs, and the televisions are actually monitors for the viewing of court procedures and documents. No cable/satellite connections are included in the construction plans.
- The project has been followed closely by both House and Senate staff, as well as two governors. The cabinet was also required to approve bond measures. No concerns were ever raised.
- Costs exceeded initial estimates because of recent requirements by the legislature that the building meet LEED certification and possess state-of-the-art security. The completed courthouse will become one of nine Gold-certified “green” buildings in the state.
- The St. Petersburg Times argues that the courthouse was both heavily lobbied for by a number of judges, as well as pushed through at the last minute. Both cannot be true.
In a recent Florida Bar poll, Hawkes received the lowest rating ever given an appellate court judge up for merit retention:
Hawkes, who headed the construction of a palatial new courthouse dubbed the “Taj Mahal” or “Taj MaHawkes,” should not be retained in office, according to 53 percent of lawyers with “considerable knowledge” of him, according to the poll released Friday.
More than 5,000 lawyers participated in the poll evaluating the 31 justices of the Florida Supreme Court and the five appeal courts that face merit retention votes in November.
Combining lawyers who have “considerable” and “limited” knowledge of Hawkes, 56 percent say he should be retained.
No judge has ever scored that low in a Florida Bar poll, a spokeswoman said.
Hawkes was appointed to the court in 2003 by then Gov. Jeb Bush.
Hawkes’ letter, in full:
A Tallahassee grand jury today decided not to pursue a criminal investigation into the construction of the new court.