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Federal court hearing ends impasse between judges

Published Oct. 13, 2010

TAMPA — An unusual impasse between two area judges came to a close after a hearing Tuesday in federal court.

U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday clarified an order he issued last week, saying he never meant for it to stop Pinellas Senior Circuit Judge Robert E. Beach from withdrawing from a case involving the Church of Scientology.

Merryday said he issued the order only to prevent Beach from fining and suspending attorney Ken Dandar, who Beach determined had defied him.

Dandar is the lawyer in two cases in which family members say Scientology played a role in a loved one's death — charges the church refutes. One case is in Merryday's court in Tampa; the other is a long-running case before Beach in Pinellas.

Recently, the church accused Dandar of violating a 2004 settlement agreement in the Pinellas case, which revolved around the 1995 death of Clearwater Scientologist Lisa McPherson. The agreement was said to prevent Dandar from ever challenging Scientology in court again. Last year, however, Dandar took the church to court in a federal wrongful-death case that ended up before Merryday.

Dandar insisted the agreement didn't bar him from taking the new case. But Beach, backed by an appellate court, said it did. He ordered Dandar to get himself removed from the federal case, which involves the 2007 death of Kyle T. Brennan.

However, Merryday wouldn't allow it, saying Brennan's family had been unable to find another attorney to take on Scientology.

Beach blamed Dandar, saying he intended to levy stiff fines against the attorney and suspend his license to practice law. Merryday then ordered Beach not to take any action against Dandar.

Beach responded, saying he wanted to withdraw from the McPherson case but that Merryday's order could be interpreted as so restrictive it might prevent him from doing so.

In dueling court filings, the veteran judges accused each other of overstepping the bounds of their authority. In Tuesday's hearing before Merryday, he told Beach there was nothing in his order that stopped him from withdrawing from the McPherson case, but he would make that clearer with a revised order.

Beach later said he planned to recuse himself immediately.

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