A lawyer for property owners suing the St. Joe company over pollution from a paper mill have filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court arguing that a judge who ruled against them failed to disclose a possible conflict of interest stemming from land deals involving Tallahasse’s infamous “Taj Mahal” courthouse.
The plaintiffs, mostly poor residents of Port St. Joe’s Millview neighborhood, had been granted class-action status by a lower court. The company appealed, and after that, according to a St. Petersburg Times article:
- In a letter to the Florida Supreme Court, the 1st District Court of Appeal proposed building a new courthouse in a St. Joe development called Southwood, on land acquired from St. Joe.
- Appeal Judge Paul Hawkes purchased a half-million dollar home in Southwood.
- A three-judge panel of the court, including Hawkes, heard St. Joe’s appeal and overturned the crucial ruling the trial judge had made in favor of the Millview residents.
That proposed new courthouse became the “Taj Mahal,” the proposed new home for the court of appeals. The crucial ruling Hawkes voted to overturn had granted the plaintiffs class-action status. Trying their cases individually could allow the company to drag out the legal process and hamper their ability to press the case. As the Times notes, “Five years later, not a single case has gone to trial.”
The plaintiffs had not been aware of the court’s involvement with St. Joe until the article appeared last month, according to the petition (available below; other related documents can be found here).
The petition asks for the ruling to be overturned, and for the court to consider allowing their case to be heard by a different court of appeals, arguing that Hawkes failed to comply with the section of Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct that says: “A judge shall disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”
Accordingly, the entire court should have recused itself so that judges from another district, whose future working environment would not be impacted, could sit by appointment to decide this appeal.
And the impartiality of Judge Hawkes in particular comes into even more serious question now that it has been disclosed that he was the court’s point person on the courthouse negotiations, had just moved into Southwood, had a personal relationship with one of St. Joe’s top executives, and that St. Joe would be more likely to accommodate the court’s desires if he dealt directly with [St. Joe Vice President Chris] Corr.
The petition was filed Friday afternoon. Also Friday, Hawkes stepped down from his position as top judge at the 1st District Court of Appeals (though he did not step down from the court entirely), but did not say why.