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Does Cope's sudden exit quash election?

The fall election to fill Judge Charles W. Cope's judgeship was in limbo Wednesday with court officials unsure it will occur.

A day after the Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge's stunning resignation, the chief judge's office expected Gov. Jeb Bush to begin the process to appoint a replacement, eliminating a long-anticipated election for the seat.

At the time of Cope's resignation, the judge had not announced plans for re-election. And just one lawyer had filed papers to run for the seat.

"The resignation nullifies the election, basically," said Ron Stuart, a spokesman for the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit. "The seat is definitely going to the appointment process."

But Sallie Skipper, the Pasco County lawyer who is chairwoman of the Judicial Nominating Commission, said she thinks Gov. Bush has the authority to allow the election in the September primary to proceed.

"He doesn't have to fill the position" by appointment, she said.

Bush's office declined to take calls on the matter.

Cope, meanwhile, did not return phone calls, leaving lawyers, judges and the community mystified about his abrupt and unexpected resignation Tuesday.

Cope was presiding over a divorce trial Monday when he was summoned off the bench to meet with Judge David Demers, chief judge of the circuit, former chief Judge Susan Schaeffer and Judge Nancy Moate Ley, administrative judge for the Family Law Division, where Cope presided.

Demers declined to discuss the meeting with reporters. Cope left the courthouse immediately after the meeting, his trial was canceled and his resignation came the next day.

Stuart, the circuit spokesman, said Monday that Cope was sick and could not continue the trial. But no other details have been released. On Wednesday, Stuart only said that Cope's resignation was not related to any new criminal charge.

Cope was charged with a DUI in Naples during 1996, a charge that was later dismissed. And in 2001, a mother and daughter charged Cope with trying to break into their hotel room with a stolen hotel key in Carmel, Calif.

Prosecutors eventually charged Cope with five misdemeanors, including prowling and peering into an inhabited dwelling.

But in a 2002 plea deal, the charges were dropped and Cope pleaded no contest to public intoxication. He was fined $1,000.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission also found Cope guilty of public intoxication and inappropriate intimate contact with a woman. The JQC cleared him of more serious charges.

Last summer, the Florida Supreme Court publicly reprimanded Cope.

Walter "Skip" Schafer Jr., the only person who had announced a run for Cope's seat, said he hopes the election will proceed.

"But either way, the good thing for the community is that Judge Cope is off the bench," Schafer said.

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