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County judge leaves her post

For months, Hillsborough County Judge Elizabeth "Betsey" Hapner vigorously denied that she should be removed from the bench for her behavior as a lawyer and as a participant in her own divorce case.

But Thursday, just weeks before the Florida Supreme Court is scheduled to begin final proceedings on her case, Hapner decided to walk away from the job.

"I decided to take this action in an effort to bring closure to a very difficult time in my life," said Hapner, who was suspended without pay April 9. "I take full responsibility for my actions and have the greatest remorse for the errors I made."

But Hapner's resignation letter to the governor _ and her request for the Supreme Court to discontinue the proceedings _ do not necessarily mean the battle is over.

The state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which ruled in March that Hapner showed a "pattern of irresponsible and dishonest behavior and lack of respect for the laws and rules of the court she has sworn to serve," plans to continue to push for her formal removal.

"The JQC disagrees that the proceedings are moot," said Winter Haven lawyer Joseph Varner, who acted as special prosecutor in the JQC hearings. "We believe the Supreme Court should consider the case and render a judgment approving the JQC's recommendation for her removal."

Hapner's attorney, Donald Smith, said there was no practical reason for going forward now that Hapner has agreed to leave. "It doesn't serve any public purpose to continue with the case when the judge has resigned," he said.

The practical effect may be whether history shows that Hapner, 40, voluntarily resigned or that she was removed from office.

Hapner, who was elected to the Hillsborough County Court bench in November 1996, was accused of abandoning her law practice and neglecting her clients to run for office.

She also was accused of lying to get an injunction against her estranged husband, Tampa police Detective Paul Rockhill, and of repeatedly failing to meet court-imposed deadlines.

Hapner broke down in tears when testifying this year during the JQC proceedings and spoke of "mistakes" and how "memories fail" and noted she was going through an ugly divorce at the time.

"Everyone's memory is affected by stress and other subjective and external factors. Everyone's perception is shaded by their circumstances," she said Thursday, reading from a prepared statement. "This does not make them liars."

The JQC panel, however, found that she "intentionally and willfully misrepresented facts and made numerous attempts to avoid the truth during the investigative stages and during the trial."

Hapner also was accused of lying to get an injunction against Rockhill, saying she had telephone tapes of him threatening her but failing to come up with such tapes when a judge ordered her to do so. A separate criminal investigation on whether Hapner committed perjury during her divorce is pending.

In her statement Thursday, Hapner again mentioned "a variety of threats and false allegations" by Rockhill and denied she had committed perjury.

"It has long been said that adversity is a great opportunity in disguise," Hapner said. "Assuming that is correct, I should have tremendous opportunities awaiting me."

Smith said Hapner wants to continue to practice law and plans to stay in town but is "exploring her options."

He acknowledged that the Florida Bar, which governs lawyers, is probably following the proceedings.

"Hopefully the Bar will reach the conclusion that Elizabeth Hapner has suffered every consequence she needs to suffer, and the public is adequately protected by her resignation," he said.

As a county judge, Hapner handled misdemeanor criminal cases such as petty theft and battery.

Hillsborough Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez said that Hapner's position probably will be up for appointment by the governor.

"It's hard to lose a colleague," Alvarez said. "But I guess she's decided it's in her best interest."