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Magazine judges judge one of worst

Reader's Digest, rehashing his 2001 drunken escapade, gives Charles W. Cope its annual Broken Gavel award.

Published October 21, 2003

Until a few days ago, the troubled saga of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Charles W. Cope was confined mostly to the Tampa Bay area.

Now more than 10-million U.S. readers could know about it.

In its November issue, Reader's Digest, one of the most widely read magazines in the world, handed out its annual Broken Gavel awards for the worst judges in America. "Sleazy, corrupt or abusive," reads the headline. "These three have earned our Broken Gavel award."

Cope was first on the list.

Reporter Dale Van Atta retold the story of Cope's behavior two years ago while in California for a judicial conference. How on April 4, 2001, Cope encountered a 31-year-old veterinarian, Lisa Jeanes, and her mother, Nina Jeanes, outside their Carmel, Calif., hotel.

Cope, 54, who admitted he was intoxicated, said he tried to help the women find their lost hotel key. Carmel police say Cope, a married father of three, actually stole the key. Cope denied it.

Cope testified he later went on a beach walk with Lisa Jeanes, that they returned to his room, and engaged in sexual foreplay. Jeanes denied the judge's version of events, saying she ran from Cope after he tried to kiss her on the beach.

The next night at about midnight, the Jeaneses said they were awakened by Cope trying to open their door by using a key. Only the door chain prevented him from entering, they said.

Police found Cope, who also was intoxicated that second night, walking the streets nearby.

After a trial last June, a Judicial Qualifications Commission panel found Cope guilty of public intoxication and improper intimate contact with Jeanes. The commission, an independent panel that investigates charges of misconduct by Florida state judges, rejected other allegations, including charges that Cope stole the key.

Also last year, Cope, who called his female accuser a "rattlesnake," pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of public intoxication to resolve his California criminal case. In a plea deal, prosecutors dismissed other charges against him. Cope was fined $1,000 and donated $5,000 to a charity of the victim's selection.

Finally, in August, Cope was reprimanded for his behavior by the Florida Supreme Court.

"His actions continue to bring shame to our court," Pinellas County Judge Walt Fullerton said of the Reader's Digest article. "Now they're laughing at us all over the country.

"The sad part is that we have over 50 hard-working judges in this circuit, but the public has a very poor perception of the judiciary at the moment. I go to Rotary other meetings and people just kind of shake their heads," he said. "They're painting all the judges with one brush. I don't think people differentiate between Judge Cope and the rest of judiciary.

"It'd be nice to see a nationwide article about the good judges of Pinellas-Pasco, but this is what we get to due to his (Cope's) irresponsibility in California."

Ron Stuart, a spokesman for the Pinellas-Pasco courts, said Cope had seen the article, but would not comment.

"It made what was a local issue into a national issue," said Clearwater attorney Walter "Skip" Schafer Jr., who has announced he will run against Cope next fall.

"A lot of people are not happy with what happened and I guess Reader's Digest picked up on that. It does makes an impression."

"I don't think people want a judge who wins a Broken Gavel."

Also on the magazine's list was a New Orleans judge who forced his staff to sell tickets to a fundraiser, and a Houston judge who repeatedly dropped the f-word and other profanities on suspects being held at a city jail.

Cope isn't the first local judge to make Reader's Digest's list. In 2000, the magazine named Hernando County Judge Peyton Hyslop to the worst judge list, citing criticism from law enforcement officials who said he too often set bail too low and allowed repeat offenders back on the street.

[Last modified October 21, 2003, 01:48:40]

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