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A judge's mysterious departure

The resignation of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Charles W. Cope may well help to restore trust in the local judiciary, but the manner of his departure only gets in the way.

Cope was abruptly pulled from an all-day trial on Monday to meet with Chief Judge David Demers and at least two other judges, and he never returned to the courtroom. The next day, he resigned to "pursue opportunities that are within the private sector." Yet no one will say why.

This is not just any judge. Cope has a documented problem with drinking, with two alcohol-related arrests in the past seven years and professional treatment at least once, and he was just reprimanded in August by the Florida Supreme Court for drunken behavior at a judicial conference in California. Given Cope's painfully public history, Demers is only arousing greater suspicion with his steadfast refusal to answer any questions. Was Cope being investigated again by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission? Was the judge missing work? Was he drinking again? Was he drunk while on the bench?

Demers and the previous chief judge, Susan Schaeffer, have not distinguished themselves in their dealings with Cope and then with the public. Schaeffer and Cope even tried to hide news of his 2001 arrest in California, with Schaeffer later informing the JQC she had refused to tell fellow judges because "one of our judges is, unfortunately, a direct leak to the news media." In a list of seven issues that Schaeffer described as pertinent to Cope after his arrest, she placed public opinion and public confidence last.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that the courthouse is not a private club. Cope was a duly elected trial judge with a salary paid by taxpayers and the power to order people put to death. He also had a nasty habit of getting in trouble and then blaming others for his problems. Even as he was being admonished by a Supreme Court that noted he had shown remorse for his actions with two women in California, he had filed a lawsuit seeking damages aimed at punishing the women for calling police. A judge who is looking for compassion and discretion doesn't go out and file lawsuits.

The odd thing about Demers' latest silence is that the events leading to Cope's resignation suggest that the judiciary may finally have exercised some of the self-policing obligations that are essential to the integrity of an institution with constitutional independence. But Demers' only public utterance was through a spokesman who had initially described Cope as leaving the courthouse because he felt ill. How honest is that?

Without some accounting for what happened, the public and Cope's fellow judges are left only to ponder. No wonder the rumors are flying.