By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Weeks after casting the deciding vote to approve a controversial ballot petition in December 2008, former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Wells joined a law firm aligned with the petition’s sponsor.
The high court’s 4-3 ruling gave life to a push by developers and statewide business interests – led by the Florida Chamber of Commerce – to blunt a possible change in the state constitution to greatly expand citizen powers over local development.
Wells landed a senior job at GrayRobinson, an influential Orlando-based corporate firm allied with the petition’s sponsor, a political action committee called Floridians for Smarter Growth. He says he got the job because of his six decade old friendship with the firm’s co-founder, J. Charles Gray.
GrayRobinson announced Wells’ hiring on March 3, 2009. But in an interview with Broward Bulldog, Wells said he might have accepted the job in January 2009, while the case was still before the court for a possible rehearing.
“I don’t really remember. I may have,” Wells said. “As I say, I was wrapping things up at this point.”
Gray did not respond to a request for comment.
Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to perform their duties impartially, and to disqualify themselves when their impartiality might reasonably be questioned. Specifically, the canons say judges negotiating for employment with a law firm are “disqualified from any matters in which that law firm appeared.”
Penalties for violations can range from removal office or public reprimand to a fine.
The rehearing had been sought by Floridians for Hometown Democracy, the group that sponsored the growth management initiative that’s on the ballot this November as Amendment 4. The court, including Wells, denied a rehearing on Jan. 29, 2009.
More than 711,000 Florida voters signed a petition to get Hometown Democracy on the ballot. If approved by 60 percent of voters, it would amend the constitution to require voter approval of changes to comprehensive land use plans.
Supporters say such change would amount to giving citizens veto power over unwanted development.
Builders, real estate interests and the Chamber formed Floridians for Smarter Growth in 2007 and raised $4.6 million to oppose Hometown Democracy, which they argue will lead to higher taxes, job losses and lawsuits. Smarter Growth’s competing amendment would offer voters a more limited opportunity to approve or disapprove such plans, but backers didn’t obtain enough signatures to get it on this year’s ballot.
GrayRobinson does not represent Smarter Growth, but its lawyers have had a significant and continuing interest in the PAC’s fortunes.
At least three GrayRobinson partners – including Wilton Manors Mayor Gary Resnick – have helped lead the fight against Hometown Democracy.
As mayor, Resnick recently pushed a resolution that put Wilton Manors on record as opposing Hometown Democracy. Resnick supported a similar measure in March as president of the Broward League of Cities.
More influential is lawyer/lobbyist Frederick Leonhardt, a member of the quasi public government agency Enterprise Florida, and a Republican fundraiser who raised more than $100,000 for President Bush in 2004.
Leonhardt has been an outspoken opponent of Hometown Democracy since 2004, when he served as chairman of its most implacable foe, the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Today, he remains on the chamber’s board, as well as the boards of other influential groups opposed to Amendment 4.
Those groups include the Coalition for Property Rights, the James Madison Institute, Floridians for Better Transportation, and the President’s Council Commercial Real Estate Forum, which Leonhardt chairs.
According to the Miami Daily Business Review, GrayRobinson now ranks as Florida’s fifth largest law firm. It has about 220 lawyers in 10 offices – including 25 in Fort Lauderdale, and its many clients include the Florida House of Representatives.
GrayRobinson also fields one of the state’s largest lobbying practices, which state records show earned more than $3.5 million in fees in 2009.
Charles Talley Wells was appointed to the Supreme Court by Governor Lawton Chiles in 1994. The conservative Wells began a two year term as chief justice in 2000, and presided over the highly-charged presidential election case Bush v. Gore.
Florida’s mandatory retirement age for judges is 70. Wells announced in mid-November 2008 that he would retire upon his 70th birthday in March 2009. GrayRobinson founding partner J. Charles Gray told the Orlando Sentinel then that Wells, his longtime friend, “was going to stay in the profession somewhere.”
On March 3, 2009, GrayRobinson announced Wells had joined the firm in an “of counsel” capacity and that he would work out of the firm’s Orlando and Tallahassee locations.
“The GrayRobinson situation was sort of a perfect fit for me,” said Wells, who declined to discuss his pay. “I was always interested in government and they have a good government practice.”
The date that Wells accepted his job at GrayRobinson is unclear.
Wells told Broward Bulldog last week that he did not recall the date, or the dates of his employment negotiations. He said he kept no records about it after leaving the court.
But on Jan. 22, 2009, Wells told an interviewer with the court’s in-house newsletter, Full Court Press, he planned to return to private practice, part time in Tallahassee and part time outside of Orlando.
That is the arrangement Wells enjoys today with GrayRobinson. Asked by Broward Bulldog whether it indicated he had by then accepted the job, Wells said it was possible.
Whenever he did take the job, Wells said, he was unaware of the firm’s aggressive efforts against Florida Hometown Democracy.
“I didn’t even know they had any kind of record on it. It never crossed my mind, but as I say the way I got with GrayRobinson was because of my friendship with Charles [Gray],” Wells said.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in September 2008 on Floridians for Smarter Growth’s competing amendment that would offer voters a more limited ability to control land use changes. Wells announced his retirement in November 2008. On Dec. 18, Wells authored the court’s majority opinion that held Smarter Growth’s proposal complied with various legal requirements.
Dissenting justices complained bitterly that Wells’ opinion authorized “a misleading and deceptive ballot title and summary to be placed before Florida votes on a future election ballot.”
One cited example: the ballot summary does not tell voters that they could only sign a land use referendum petition at the local elections office, not at a library or supermarket as is the customary method of citizen involvement.
Palm Beach lawyer Lesley Blackner, Hometown Democracy’s co-founder, calls the Supreme Court’s decision the “low point” of her long campaign to put Amendment 4 on the ballot.
Since 2003, the Hometown Democracy PAC has collected $2.1 million in contributions – including $750,000 from Blackner.
Three months ago, Floridians for Smarter Growth was replaced by a new group called Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, which was formed by the same Chamber lawyer/lobbyist who founded Floridians for Smarter Growth, Richard E. Coates.
In February, Smarter Growth gave $487,269 to the new Citizens PAC. Two weeks later, the Chamber contributed $125,000.
At the end of March, Citizens had a war chest of nearly $1 million. Other big contributors include the trade association Florida Mainstreet Merchants ($150,000), Regency Realty Group ($50,000), Waste Management ($50,000) and NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association ($75,000).