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Justice moves too slow for two judges

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 16, 2001


The letter fell from the sky. It was the last thing Larry Crow expected.

The draft of the letter reached Crow, a Republican state representative from Dunedin, last Thursday, and the final version came Friday.

Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney wanted two members of Florida's most esteemed judiciary investigated with an eye to possible impeachment.

Crow got the job because he is chairman of the state House Judicial Oversight Committee.

But don't thank him.

Thank Bob Bonanno, and while you're at it, Charlie Cope.

Bonanno, a Hillsborough circuit judge, can't keep his stories straight, and Cope, the former chief judge of Pinellas-Pasco family court, came back from a judicial conference last spring without letting on he'd been arrested.

Thank them because they moved somebody in the position to do something.

You do not displease Feeney.

Not even if you're a judge.

Not even if you're the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

A grand jury that looked into Bonanno's conduct concluded he was so untrustworthy he ought to resign for the dumb move he pulled two years ago -- noodling around in the darkened office of another judge who was his longtime enemy.

The JQC -- the commission that regulates judges in Florida -- was unmoved. It called Bonanno's actions a "misstep" and recommended a reprimand for him.

The difference between the recommendations of the grand jury and the JQC was too wide to make any sense.

Cope is facing five misdemeanor counts in California for supposedly trying to get into the hotel room of two women he met while at a judicial conference in Carmel.

What a prince.

Impeachment of a judge in Florida is extremely rare. Representative Crow said one of the big issues will be trying to determine the threshold of misconduct that can get you impeached.

In other words, how bad is bad?

Is what Bonanno did really bad?

Or is the standard getting busted?

Or something banal, like carrying on with a bailiff?

You can see the possibilities for philosophical debate here.

It could take forever.

And it might. Eight members of Crow's committee are lawyers, and even Crow, himself a lawyer, said this could complicate things.

You know what's bad?

The process is bad. It is taking too long in the JQC and will take too long in the Legislature.

And a judge can milk that to the max.

Bonanno's case has dragged on two years. Only recently did the JQC send its recommendation to the state Supreme Court. The high court hands out the discipline, usually following the JQC's lead.

Feeney wants to make this the last call for Bonanno. You either tell your story straight or you don't. There is no in-between.

And while judges do enjoy the same rights everybody else has -- to deny, delay and generally whine -- it looks very strange when they exercise those rights. You want them to fall on their sword, if only to uphold a standard.

When they don't, they look like the average guy on the docket call Monday morning.

This will not do. Not for Feeney. Not for the rest of us.

-- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mjmelone@sptimes.com.

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