Judges' impeachment probe opens
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE and DAVID KARP
© St. Petersburg Times,
The speaker of the Florida House on Friday launched an impeachment inquiry of Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno and Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Charles Cope, marking the first time in a quarter century lawmakers have unleashed the process against a Florida judge.
Speaker Tom Feeney directed the House's Judicial Oversight Committee to recommend to the full House by mid January whether it should consider drafting articles of impeachment against the embattled judges.
"The speaker is questioning their ability to hear cases impartially and fairly," said state Rep. Larry Crow, R-Dunedin, who chairs the committee. "We're not on a witch hunt. We're on a fact-finding mission. This is not an attempt by a branch of government to have a chilling effect on the judiciary."
If the House voted by a two-thirds majority to impeach, the judges would face suspension pending trial in the Senate, where it would also take a two-thirds vote to convict and remove them from office.
They would also lose their state pensions.
Crow said Feeney, who did not return calls for comment, was frustrated by the inability of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, a watchdog group that regulates judges, to quickly and effectively deal with allegations of misconduct by the judges.
"There's a general sense in the House leadership that the JQC doesn't have enough power to expeditiously remove bad judges," Crow said.
The JQC last month recommended to the Florida Supreme Court that Bonanno be publicly reprimanded for a "serious lapse in judgment" for entering the office of another judge after hours. The judge awaits a final decision from the Supreme Court.
State Attorney Jerry Hill of Polk County, who oversaw a grand jury that investigated Bonanno, sharply criticized the deal between Bonanno and the JQC calling for just a reprimand, saying the JQC "missed the mark."
The grand jury in a non-binding report released this year concluded that Bonanno is "unfit" to be a judge and should be removed.
Cope, meanwhile, awaits a Nov. 26 criminal trial in California on five misdemeanor charges stemming from allegations by two women that he stole their room key and tried to enter their hotel room as they slept.
The JQC also is conducting an investigation of Cope, who is on an indefinite, paid leave of absence.
The decision to open an impeachment inquiry complicates pending misconduct cases against both judges and stuns attorneys representing them, who defend their clients as able, ethical judges.
"I am disturbed," said attorney Ralph Fernandez, who represents Bonanno. "One thing I find inexcusable is that I am blind-sided by the media. That is as unprofessional an act as I have seen.
"There has to be bad motives behind it. It enflames public opinion," he said.
Attorney Lou Kwall, representing Cope, said, "It's a totally unnecessary proceeding and really makes no sense in Judge Cope's case until all the facts are determined at his California trial."
Crow said his 11-member committee will meet on Oct. 23 to discuss with staff the procedure for conducting its inquiry.
Crow also said the committee can subpoena witnesses and collect evidence at public hearings that would follow later in the year to let members decide whether impeachment is appropriate.
"I'm very supportive of an independent judiciary," Crow said. "I look very closely on any action that impedes that. But I believe in these alleged egregious circumstances action is appropriate."
The JQC was created more than 30 years ago, in part, to take the cumbersome job of impeachment away from the Legislature. With Florida growing rapidly, the Legislature did not have the time or political will to discipline judges who misbehaved.
JQC Special Counsel Lauri Ross defended how the JQC handled the Bonanno case.
"When I handle a proceeding, I do it as fast and accurate as possible," Ross said. "No one has ever accused me of being a wimp before. ... All of us are looking for the same thing. We want good judges sitting on the bench."
The chairman of the JQC, Judge James Wolf of the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, also defended how the JQC had carried out its role under the state Constitution.
"I believe the JQC is doing a good job with its constitutional responsibilities," Wolf said.
The impeachment process "is not only cumbersome, but it is pretty expensive -- much more so than the JQC process," said attorney Frederick Karl, a former Supreme Court justice.
Karl participated in two impeachments as a state representative in the 1950s and served as special counsel to a House committee that began impeachment proceedings against three Supreme Court justices in the mid 1970s.
The entire state Senate acts as the jury of a trial, with the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding as judge. A group of House managers serve as prosecutors. It takes a two-thirds vote of present senators to convict.
There really are no fixed standards about how an impeachment or trial runs, Karl said.
"It's political, and it's not perfect," Karl said. "But it is better than no process at all."
If impeached and convicted, the judges also would lose their pensions. When the JQC removes a judge, the pension is not lost.
"They get their pension and everybody goes away happy," Crow said. "Impeachment is much more severe. There's a real hammer there."
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire