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Chief judge returns to Scientology case

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan F. Schaeffer is back to work after a medical leave and again will preside over the criminal case against the Church of Scientology.

Schaeffer, 57, the circuit's chief judge, had assigned the case in February to Judge Brandt C. Downey III, citing health reasons that she did not disclose.

Downey was scheduled this week to hear the church's motion to dismiss the case, but the hearing was delayed. Had it occurred, Schaeffer said she would have kept Downey on the case to ensure continuity.

But when defense attorneys and prosecutors pushed the hearing to early April, Schaeffer decided to jump back in. She said it would have been difficult for Downey, who has a full caseload, to accommodate the expected six-week trial in October.

Scientology is hoping the case never gets to trial, arguing the prosecution places an unconstitutional burden on a religion. The church's Clearwater entity is charged with abusing and illegally practicing medicine on Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995 while in the care of church staffers at the Fort Harrison Hotel.

Although brief, Downey's time on the Scientology case was eventful. Last month, Medical Examiner Joan Wood changed the manner of McPherson's death from "undetermined" to "accident," a decision that changed the complexion of the case.

Also, the church tried to have Downey removed, arguing he might not be impartial. Scientology cited Downey's onetime partnership with three Clearwater lawyers who years ago took issue with the church. The church also cited Downey's association with local organizations that support the practice of psychiatry and psychology, which Scientologists detest. Downey declined to recuse himself, a decision affirmed last week by the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

Schaeffer, who has resumed a full schedule, said the recusal issue was not a factor in her decision to relieve Downey. She also reiterated that her medical problem was personal.

"Certainly, my health is better than it has been in years," she said. "I'm happy to be back."

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