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Judge leaves mid trial, resigns

(ran SP, NP, V, SS editions of NATIONAL)

A Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge whose tumultuous career survived charges of DUI and public drunkenness abruptly resigned Tuesday, providing little explanation and leaving colleagues mystified.

Judge Charles W. Cope's resignation, effective Feb. 2, appeared unplanned and came the day after Cope, presiding over a trial, was summoned off the bench, never to return to the confused litigants in his courtroom.

Cope, 54, who would have faced re-election in the fall, said in a one-sentence letter to Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday that he wanted to "pursue opportunities that are within the private sector."

Chief Judge David Demers declined an interview. His spokesman said the circuit would release no information about Cope's decision. Cope, who earned about $134,000 a year, did not return calls for comment.

A court spokesman said Cope will not return to the bench to hear any cases before his resignation takes effect on Monday.

His case load will be taken over by either retired judges or a county judge temporarily elevated to the circuit court by Demers.

The news of Cope's departure stunned judges in the circuit who had speculated through the day why Cope had been summarily called off the bench during what was a routine divorce trial.

It was especially surprising given what some have seen as Cope's no-holds-barred effort to keep his judgeship after he was accused in 2001 of becoming intoxicated and trying to break into the hotel room of two women in Carmel, Calif.

Cope was never convicted of trying to break into the room. But he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of public intoxication and was publicly reprimanded last year by the Florida Supreme Court.

"This certainly leaves some unanswered questions," said Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold. "It's the tragic end to a sad set of circumstances In all of the criticism leveled at Judge Cope, little of it pointed at what he did on the bench. It all resulted from things off the bench. Lawyers thought he was a good judge.

"Whatever his root problem is, I hope Charles can address it and resolve it and everybody involved get to a better point in their lives," St. Arnold said.

Pinellas County Judge Walt Fullerton, one of Cope's few colleagues who publicly criticized his behavior, said, "I think he finally did the right thing. He should have done it a long time ago."

Noting the abrupt nature of the resignation after Cope's 12 years on the bench, Fullerton said, "Something must have happened recently."

Lisa and Nina Jeanes, the mother and daughter who accused Cope of stealing their room key in April 2001 and trying to enter their locked hotel room, said Cope's resignation offers little relief.

That is because Cope filed suit against both women earlier this year, accusing them of defamation for lying about him.

"I think he's pathetic," said Lisa Jeanes, a Maryland veterinarian. "I know what he's all about. He's dishonest and unethical and a disgrace. It's great he resigned."

Cope's resignation throws into limbo the scheduled fall election for his seat. Cope had not announced plans for re-election. Lawyer Walter "Skip" Schafer Jr. is the only person so far who has announced plans to run for the seat.

Bush's office did not return a call about the governor's options for appointing a replacement or allowing the election to proceed.

Cope's week began at 9 a.m. Monday with a long-planned divorce trial in a courtroom at the Clearwater courthouse, where he presides over family law cases.

The trial was scheduled to last the entire day. At 10 a.m., Cope announced he had an important e-mail and needed to take a 15-minute break, litigants who were present said. He returned and continued listening to testimony.

About 11 a.m., looking rushed, Cope announced another 15-minute break, saying he needed to leave, those present said. Cope never returned.

Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley, administrative family law judge, later came into his courtroom and told litigants Cope was in her office and was too sick to continue. She said the trial would have to be canceled.

"He had displayed no symptoms of being ill," said attorney David Sharp, who was trying the case. "I thought, damn, he's had a heart attack."

By Tuesday morning, seven hours before Cope resigned, another judge had taken over his duties.

When the St. Petersburg Times called a court spokesman Monday night about Cope's exit, spokesman Ron Stuart said Cope had been called to a meeting with other judges.

"I can confirm that he was called into a meeting," Stuart said. "When the meeting was over he wasn't feeling well and left. It was a meeting of judges. I don't know the subject of the meeting."

Circuit Judge George Greer said after the resignation, "Obviously, there's more to this than a one-sentence letter. I'm not sure we'll ever know."

Cope's legal difficulties began in 1996 when a Naples police officer arrested him on a DUI charge. The charge was later dismissed by a judge.

But Cope's biggest test came in April 2001 when, while at a judicial conference in Carmel, Calif., an intoxicated Cope was arrested after Lisa Jeanes, then 31, and her mother, Nina Jeanes, then 64, accused him of trying to get into their hotel room.

The night before, Lisa Jeanes said Cope had tried to kiss her on the beach before she ran away in fright.

Cope, a married father of three, denied the allegation, saying he and Lisa Jeanes had simply engaged in consensual foreplay.

Police charged Cope with five misdemeanors, including prowling, petty theft and battery.

The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission charged Cope with violating judicial canons. But his career was saved when a JQC panel rejected the most serious charges, finding him guilty only of public intoxication and inappropriate intimate contact with a woman.

Later, criminal charges in California were dismissed in an August 2002 plea deal. Cope was fined $1,000 after pleading guilty to the misdemeanor charge of public intoxication.

Prosecutors said they believed the women but wanted to end the case to prevent them from enduring painful testimony.

Finally, the Florida Supreme Court publicly reprimanded Cope on the JQC charges last summer, saying Cope had "gone astray."

John Mills, the JQC attorney who prosecuted Cope, said he was saddened by Cope's fall.

"All his problems appeared to stem from alcohol," Mills said. "It happens to a lot of people. Hopefully, it's something he can get over and come back from."

A CHRONOLOGY

NOV. 3, 1992: Charles W. Cope is elected to the Pinellas-Pasco circuit bench in a runoff election.

JUNE 24, 1996: Cope is arrested on a DUI charge by a Naples police officer who says he saw Cope's Ford Bronco weaving. Cope, in Naples attending a judicial conference, refuses a Breathalyzer test.

FEB. 6, 1997: A Collier County judge dismisses the misdemeanor charge Cope faces after quashing all evidence in the case because of doubts cast on the accuracy of the arresting officer's testimony.

APRIL 5, 2001: Cope is arrested by Carmel, Calif., police after two women accuse him of trying to enter their locked hotel room. Cope, in town attending a judicial conference, denies the accusation.

JULY 12, 2001: News of Cope's arrest breaks, stunning his peers. Cope reports the allegations to the Judicial Qualifications Commission for the first time.

AUG. 13, 2001: Cope begins a paid leave of absence.

DEC. 7, 2001: The JQC charges Cope with violating judicial canons.

JUNE 26, 2002: After a trial, a JQC panel finds Cope is guilty of public intoxication and inappropriate conduct of an intimate nature. It rejects four more serious charges, including allegations he stole a room key and tried to enter the hotel room.

AUG. 5, 2002: A JQC panel recommends that the Florida Supreme Court publicly reprimand Cope for violations of judicial canons.

AUG. 12, 2002: Cope returns to the bench after a one-year paid leave of absence.

AUG. 29, 2002: Cope pleads no contest to misdemeanor public intoxication to resolve his California criminal case. In a plea deal, prosecutors dismiss other charges against him. Cope is fined $1,000 and donates $5,000 to a charity of the victim's selection.

MAY 29, 2003: The Florida Supreme Court accepts the recommendation of the JQC panel and says Cope will be publicly reprimanded.

AUG. 28, 2003: Cope is reprimanded by the Florida Supreme Court.

JAN. 26, 2004: Cope is unexpectedly summoned out of a trial and never returns.

JAN. 27, 2004: Cope resigns from the Pinellas-Pasco circuit bench.

View past coverage of the Cope case by visiting www.sptimes.com and clicking on today's story for more links.

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