Chief judge returns to Scientology case
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
St. Petersburg Times
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
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."