Facing ethics trial, 'Taj Mahal' courthouse Judge Paul Hawkes says he's resigning

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Lucy Morgan

Published November 20, 2011

TALLAHASSEE Unable to negotiate a penalty short of being removed from office, 1st District Court Judge Paul M. Hawkes is resigning from the court to avoid facing a trial before the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

The charges against Hawkes stem from the construction of the "Taj Mahal,'' a posh $50 million courthouse built by his court after Hawkes and other judges aggressively lobbied legislators for a bond issue that was buried in a last-minute transportation bill at the close of the 2007 Legislature.

Hawkes was accused of intimidating state officials charged with overseeing the project as the court pushed for mahogany walls, granite countertops and 60-inch television screens in every office. He was also accused of destroying public records pertaining to the court's budget, trying to get a furniture vendor to underwrite a trip for Hawkes and two relatives and directing a court employee to help his son with legal work.

He has strenuously denied any wrongdoing but apparently failed to convince members of the commission responsible for disciplining judges that he should be allowed to remain a judge. At a trial scheduled in late January he faced the possibility of a recommendation that would remove him from office.

The trial is now unlikely to go forward since

The first floor rotunda of the 1st District Court of Appeal courthouse features 35-foot-tall columns of gypsum-composite painted to look like marble sitting on a terrazzo floor with the state seal inlaid in the center.

Hawkes' resignation would become effective Jan. 4. In other cases where judges have resigned rather than face trial, the JQC has dropped formal charges and forced the judge to promise they would never seek to preside over a courtroom in the future.

In addition to avoiding a trial, his resignation secures pension benefits. Records at the State Division of Retirement indicate Hawkes, 54, began inquiring about a September retirement in June. He has almost 18 years of service and would be eligible for $4,314 a month beginning in March 2012 or he could draw $4,978 each month if he waited until March 2014. His current annual salary is $150,076.

F. Wallace Pope, the Clearwater lawyer prosecuting Hawkes for the JQC, said Wednesday that he thinks the resignation was "in the best interests of Judge Hawkes, personally, and in the best interest of the court as an institution as well as the state of Florida.''

Pope said he will soon dismiss the case but would not discuss negotiations that led to the resignation or any ongoing discussions between the JQC and Hawkes.

Other judges, state legislators and various officials involved in the construction of the new courthouse were among the witnesses scheduled to testify in a trial that would have put a harsh spotlight on the courts in the middle of a legislative session that could see even more budget cuts aimed at the state's struggling judicial system.

Hawkes, his attorney Ken Sukhia and officials at the court refused to discuss the case Wednesday when the St. Petersburg Times obtained a copy of the resignation. The only public mention of Hawkes' attempt to bargain with the commission came in October when attorneys for both sides agreed to postpone his trial while they discussed a settlement without a trial.

In his three paragraph letter to Gov. Rick Scott, Hawkes made no mention of the charges against him, but called his nine years of service on the court "a great honor.'' He praised the court for its use of electronic records, saying it has elevated the court to "a high level of competence'' in disposing of cases and making decisions.

The JQC charges against Hawkes contend that his conduct seriously impaired the confidence of Floridians in the integrity of the judicial system.

"Your conduct relative to the construction of the new First DCA courthouse has brought the entire judiciary of the State of Florida into disrepute, has inflicted substantial harm upon the entire state court system and has therefore demeaned the entire court system of the State of Florida,'' the commission charged.

Earlier this year Hawkes clashed with lawmakers who questioned the new courthouse. At the time Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, accused Hawkes and another judge of lying to lawmakers.

"What is sad and disturbing is that he can resign and get away with it,'' Fasano said Wednesday. "It's just frustrating to me and many of the taxpayers throughout the state. The JQC should keep investigating and make sure this never happens again.''

Chief Judge Bob Benton, named to lead the court a year ago after Hawkes was forced to give up the job, refused to discuss Hawkes' departure.

Hawkes, a former legislator from Citrus County, was appointed to the court by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002. It was his fifth attempt to become a judge. Voters twice agreed, in 2004 and 2010, to retain him on the North Florida appellate court that hears cases in 37 counties from Jacksonville to Pensacola. His replacement will be selected by the governor from a list of nominees provided by a Judicial Nominating Commission.