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Bush to replace resigned circuit judge

Gov. Jeb Bush's office says it will appoint a replacement for Judge Charles W. Cope, who abruptly resigned Tuesday, eliminating a scheduled fall election for the seat.

Sallie Skipper, the chairwoman of the Pinellas-Pasco Judicial Nominating Commission, said Bush's office informed her late Thursday that he wants the group to forward him the names of six candidates by March 29.

Once Bush makes an appointment, the new circuit judge won't face election until the fall of 2006.

So far, only one candidate had announced his intention to run for Cope's seat. At the time Cope announced his resignation, the judge had not yet said whether he intended to run for re-election.

The only candidate for the seat, Walter "Skip" Schafer Jr., said he will submit his name to the nominating committee.

"If that's the governor's decision, then that's what I'll do," said Schafer, who had hoped Bush would allow the election to proceed.

Cope has not returned repeated calls for comment. His specific plans remain unknown. The Florida Bar will open an investigation of Cope, 54, once his resignation becomes effective Monday, which could endanger his license to practice law.

Susan Bloemendaal, the Florida Bar's chief branch disciplinary counsel in Tampa, said the bar would investigate behavior by Cope noted in recent newspaper articles. She would not say specifically what may be of interest to the bar.

The bar has no jurisdiction over a sitting judge. But upon leaving the bench, a former judge can be subject to bar investigation and discipline for behavior during his or her judicial tenure, Bloemendaal said.

Cope's resignation letter said he wanted to "pursue opportunities that are within the private sector." Circuit officials declined to discuss what may have motivated his resignation.

Although most bar investigations are sparked by specific complaints, this one is not, Bloemendaal said. The bar has the option, she said, of opening an investigation itself, absent any complaint, if information comes to light from any source, including newspaper articles.

The Florida Bar would be most likely to investigate allegations involving fraud, deceit or a lack of candor before any tribunal, including the Judicial Qualifications Commission, Bloemendaal said.

Cope was accused in April 2001 of trying to break into the hotel room of two women in Carmel, Calif., where he was attending a judicial conference. One of the women said Cope tried to kiss her the previous night during a beach walk before she ran away.

Cope denied the allegations, saying he and the woman engaged in consensual foreplay.

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

But in a 2002 plea deal, Cope pleaded no contest to misdemeanor public intoxication, paid a $1,000 fine and donated $5,000 to a charity of the victim's choice. Other charges were dismissed.

In a separate proceeding, the JQC also cleared Cope of the most serious charges he faced. But it found him guilty of public intoxication and inappropriate intimate contact with a woman. Last year, the Florida Supreme Court publicly reprimanded Cope.

Earlier this month, Cope sued the two women, alleging that they filed false police reports on the matter.