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Judge's exit averted removal

Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Charles Cope was headed for impeachment by the Florida Legislature before his abrupt resignation early last week, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd said Saturday.

After a meeting of House leaders Jan. 20, Byrd told the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court that legislators had grown impatient with Cope and would take steps to remove him from the bench.

"The consensus was unanimous to move forward with impeaching Judge Cope," said Byrd, R-Plant City.

State Rep. Jeffrey Kottkamp, who as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee was following the Cope case closely, had directed his staff to assemble investigative material in preparation for putting the impeachment on the legislative agenda.

Cope had been under a cloud since 2001, when he was charged with trying to break into the hotel room of two women he met while at a judicial conference in California. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, but then in January he filed a lawsuit against the two women.

"If you believe the allegations in California, he's essentially suing his victims," said Kottkamp, a Republican from Cape Coral. "We do have the integrity of the judicial system to watch for."

Kottkamp and Byrd said Cope's suit, which alleges that the women filed false police reports in the incident and owe him damages as a result, revived a 3-year-old impeachment plan that had been abandoned.

"All of the members who were involved in this have a great deal of respect for our judicial system," Byrd said. "We exercised a great deal of restraint in the last couple of years in light of what he had been up to."

Legislators dropped the impeachment plan to allow the Judicial Qualifications Commission to complete its investigation of the California incident. Cope ultimately pleaded no contest to a public intoxication charge and inappropriate contact with a woman. He paid a $1,000 fine.

The JQC concluded its investigation with a public rebuke, issued by the Florida State Supreme Court in 2003.

But that didn't satisfy some people in Tallahassee.

"The general consensus was they didn't think the JQC had addressed the situation fully," Byrd said.

Then, Kottkamp said Cope seemed to express no remorse after the reprimand.

"Some folks weren't particularly happy with how he responded," Kottkamp said.

The final straw was the lawsuit that Cope filed in August. Kottkamp said an aide alerted him when news reports brought it to light last month. Kottkamp got in touch with Byrd and talked about bringing up impeachment again.

Members of the House Leadership Committee, which includes Byrd, Majority Leader Marco Rubio, R-Miami, and State Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, discussed Cope's recent action at a meeting on Jan. 20.

That same week, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, who was in Tallahassee on other business, stopped by Kottkamp's office to say hello, he said. Schaeffer was chief circuit judge when Cope was arrested in California, and testified in his defense at his 2002 trial before a JQC hearing panel.

Kottkamp said he told Schaeffer legislators were preparing to remove Cope from office, which would have cost him his pension.

Within days, Cope resigned.

Cope was presiding over a divorce trial on Jan. 26 when he was summoned off the bench to meet with Schaeffer, Judge David Demers, who is chief judge of the circuit, and Judge Nancy Moate Ley, administrative judge for the Family Law Division, where Cope presided.

Cope left the courthouse immediately after the meeting, his trial was canceled and his resignation came the next day.

"The last thing we wanted to do is deal with a judge in another branch of government," Kottkamp said. "It's really a last resort to get into impeachment."

The judges involved in the meeting with Cope have declined to comment. Schaeffer did not return calls to her home on Saturday.

In Florida, impeachment proceedings must originate in the state House of Representatives, where the Judiciary Committee would draw up charges and vote on them before consideration by the full House.

If approved by committee, and passed by two-thirds of the House, the charges would be forwarded to the Senate where a trial would be held. Members of the Senate would sit as jurors and make the ultimate decision.

A two-thirds vote is required to convict a judge and remove him from office.

Gov. Jeb Bush's office said last week it will appoint a replacement for Cope, which would eliminate a scheduled fall election for the seat.

The Florida Bar will open an investigation of Cope once his resignation becomes effective Monday.

The Bar would most likely investigate allegations involving fraud, deceit or a lack of candor before any tribunal, including the Judicial Qualifications Commission, said Susan Bloemendaal, the Florida Bar's chief branch disciplinary counsel in Tampa.

The outcome could endanger Cope's license to practice law.

Cope's resignation letter said he wanted to "pursue opportunities that are within the private sector."

Kottkamp said that despite Cope's troubles, he might have been able to keep his job if he had responded differently to the situation.

"I think people are forgiving if you confess," he said. "But if you take this I'm-above-the-law approach, people don't appreciate it."

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