Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Perfect Storm Has Judges Concerned about Merit Vote; Bar Urges Voters to Study Retention Election amid Issues like "Taj Mahal" Courthouse

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Perfect Storm Has Judges Concerned about Merit Vote; Bar Urges Voters to Study Retention Election amid Issues like "Taj Mahal" Courthouse

Article excerpt

Byline: PAUL PINKHAM

No Florida judge has ever lost a merit retention election, but The Florida Bar leaders in Jacksonville worry that good appellate judges could be brought down this year by a Tallahassee courthouse controversy they had nothing to do with.

They cite the perfect storm of anti-incumbent attitude, limited information on judges up for merit retention and allegations of judicial arm-twisting to build the so-called "Taj Mahal" courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeal.

So they are hoping to direct voters to a Florida Bar poll released last month that includes votes from lawyers who know the appellate judges best.

Six of the seven 1st District judges on the ballot got high marks in the poll. The exception was Chief Judge Paul Hawkes. Of the 526 lawyers who claimed "considerable knowledge" of him, 53 percent said he shouldn't be retained.

"We're not here to throw Paul Hawkes under the bus," former Bar President Hank Coxe told the Times-Union editorial board Thursday in response to a question about the poll. "We're here to say that The Florida Bar created this poll for a reason: to educate the public on how the lawyers assess the quality of the judges."

Added appellate lawyer Mike Tanner: "The numbers are what they are."

Hawkes was singled out in an audit by Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate for governor. The audit criticized Hawkes for bullying the state's Department of Management Services into building the opulent $48.8 million, mahogany- and granite-filled structure in a tony Tallahassee suburb. The building will be the new home for the 15-member court, which hears civil and criminal appeals from Jacksonville to Pensacola.

Hawkes told the Times-Union on Thursday that criticism of the courthouse has been "incredibly unfair."

"The audit is not an audit," he said. "It was really far more of a political document."

As for the election, Hawkes said he would like to think he can survive the retention vote. He noted that his fellow 1st District judges know him best, and they elected him chief judge.

He agrees with the concern for the judges on the ballot who joined the court long after the courthouse decisions were made. …

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