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    A Times Editorial

    Cope's bully tactics

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published November 23, 2002

    Three months after a state hearing panel gave him a break and recommended only a reprimand for his tawdry behavior at a California judicial conference, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Charles Cope just won't let up. He wants money and vindication, and his bully tactics are getting old. Is the state Supreme Court, which must ultimately decide how to deal with Cope, watching?

    Cope and his attorney, Robert Merkle, have spent more than a year calling people names and pointing the accusing finger everywhere except in the judge's own mirror. He was arrested in Carmel, Calif., walking on a street in the early hours of April 5, 2001, a few blocks from a hotel where two women say he tried to break into their room. Cope, 53 and married, had met the women the night before, and admits he had consensual sexual foreplay with one of them. He was, by his own admission, drunk both nights.

    The public he serves, and the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, knew nothing about his little skirmish with police until the Times reported on it three months later. For a judicial panel in August to recommend only a reprimand, given the record of deceit andcoverup, was stunning. But, true to his form, Cope has not been content to leave well enough alone.

    Cope has asked the state, which paid his $130,000 salary for a full year while he was on leave, to give him $389,000 for attorney's fees and costs. He claims he is due reimbursement because he won his case before the Judicial Commission, even though he was cited for two judicial code violations. He claims he admitted his transgressions upfront, even though case records reveal just the opposite. He claims he was "ultimately acquitted of all criminal charges" in California, even though he pleaded no contest to public drunkenness in a plea deal to avoid worse.

    The California prosecutor has said in sworn documents that she believes the woman, Maryland veterinarian Lisa Jeanes, told the truth. The prosecutor agreed to settle the case because she did not want "to put the victim through the extra hardship of a trial." The reason is that Cope tried to put Jeanes on trial. He hired a private investigator to dig up dirt, and Merkle tried to depose virtually everyone who knew the woman -- two former boyfriends, a former veterinarian intern, a dermatologist, the ex-wife of a former boyfriend, the former husband of Jeanes' mother. The investigator filed a report that amounted to a contemptible, wholly unsubstantiated smear of Jeanes' private life.

    John Mills, the JQC's special counsel, has watched this abuse for more than a year and is fed up. In his most recent motion to the Supreme Court, he wrote this about Cope:

    "He attacks the character and integrity of the investigative panel, the commission's attorneys, the alleged victim, and her former boyfriend. He levels false allegations in his motion. In short, Judge Cope provides no sufficient factual or legal basis to support his demands. All he does is call into serious question the remorse that led the hearing panel to be lenient in its recommendation."

    Mills is right. Cope has insulted the Judicial Commission and shamed the courts, and the Supreme Court has to end all this. In previous cases, most recently with Hillsborough Circuit Judge Cynthia Holloway, the court has shown it is willing to stand up to judges who play games with the institution they serve. Cope has turned his ethics case into a vicious contact sport, and he deserves no leniency. Bullies simply don't belong in robes.

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