Judge recalls worry for colleague in pain
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- Former Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer said she was trying to buy time for a judge in pain.
After his April 2001 arrest in California, Judge Charles Cope faced the prospect of telling state judicial authorities. Then he needed to tell his wife about a drunken dalliance with another woman. Unwanted publicity was sure to dog him, too.
"He told me, 'I might as well jump off the Sunshine Skyway bridge,"' Schaeffer told a Judicial Qualifications Commission panel on Tuesday. "This was not a joke in my mind ... I was worried."
Schaeffer recalled that Cope asked her: Did he have to immediately tell the JQC about the arrest? Schaeffer decided he didn't.
"This was about all one judge could bear at that time," Schaeffer testified.
The question of why Cope didn't immediately report his misdemeanor arrest is central to the JQC case that accuses him of violating judicial canons. Schaeffer testified in the second day of a JQC hearing that could lead to Cope's removal from the bench.
The hearing is expected to conclude today. A decision by a six-person JQC panel about whether Cope is guilty of violating canons may not be released for weeks, or even months. The panel makes a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court.
Schaeffer's decision to allow Cope to delay reporting his arrest had repercussions. The JQC ultimately informed her that she was wrong and privately scolded her for the advice she provided Cope.
"Frankly, I did what I thought was right. I'm still not sure the JQC is right," said Schaeffer, who left her post as chief judge in July but remains a circuit judge.
Cope, 53, was visiting Carmel, Calif., for a judicial conference when, after midnight, he went out for a walk while intoxicated. He met two women, a 64-year-old doctor and her 31-year-old daughter, having a conversation on their hotel balcony. The women also were intoxicated.
Later, Cope walked on the beach with the daughter. She says he tried to kiss her repeatedly. She finally ran away, saying she was terrified.
Cope testified the pair passionately kissed and returned to his hotel room for foreplay that stopped short of sex. The woman said Cope is lying.
The next night, the women said, Cope used a key he stole from them to try to break into their hotel room.
Cope took the stand on Tuesday and publicly explained his version of that night for the first time.
He said publicity in newspapers, especially the St. Petersburg Times, has "been the political equivalent of political assassination and a lynching."
Of the woman who accused him of unwanted sexual advances, he said, "That woman is no more vulnerable than a rattlesnake."
Of the JQC special counsel prosecuting him, Cope said, "I've never seen a prosecutor put on a witness he knows is lying."
Cope said he made errors in judgment and is sorry for getting drunk and making a pass at a woman while married.
Cope said he was detained by police after a legally shaky arrest involving a woman he considered was unstable. He thought he would be quickly cleared. He denied trying to conceal the arrest from the JQC.
Schaeffer said she learned of the arrest a week afterward when State Attorney Bernie McCabe called her. McCabe had been told by Clearwater police, who themselves were called by Carmel police.
"He said, 'You don't know about this, do you? Oh, gosh. You better call Judge Cope,"' Schaeffer said.
Schaeffer called Cope. She said she told him to start thinking about reporting the arrest to the JQC.
She said Cope told her that he had spent up to $15,000 for a criminal lawyer in California.
"He said, 'I don't have the funds to hire another lawyer. Do I have to do it right now? Can it wait?"' Schaeffer said.
Schaeffer said she carefully research the options and her obligations. She said she determined the chief judge had leeway, especially if she developed a plan for Cope's alcoholism.
She made Cope a deal: They wouldn't report to the JQC if he immediately saw an alcoholism counselor and followed the counselor's directions.
"It just seemed to me to be fair under the rules to buy him a little time and let him get his finances in order and let him report later," she said.
She said both agreed the incident would have to be reported once his case was resolved, or when the press reported the arrest.
"Charles and I thought the case would be resolved quickly and favorably to him," Schaeffer said.
Schaeffer said chief judges had not previously received clear guidance from the JQC on when a minor misdemeanor need be reported.
She said Cope followed her lead in not reporting the incident and both would have reported the matter immediately if they believed they were required to do so.
Schaeffer said, "I didn't take my responsibility lightly."
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