Feb 15, 2000 - 12:27 AM
Scientology judge transfers case, takes medical leave
By DAVID SOMMER
The chief judge for Pasco and Pinellas counties is on medical leave and has given another judge the job of handling one of the circuit's most complex and time-consuming cases.
Chief Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer had taken responsibility for trying the state's criminal case against the Church of Scientology's Flag Service Organization because she said she expected it to be too time-consuming for a regular judge with a docket full of other cases.
However, Schaeffer signed an order Thursday transferring the Scientology case to Circuit Judge Brandt Downey. In the past, Schaeffer has said Downey is one of the circuit's busiest and hardest- working judges.
Schaeffer has not been available for comment since last week, when she went on a medical leave that is scheduled to last until Feb. 28, said Bill Lockhart, the circuit court administrator.
Lockhart said Schaeffer has asked that her medical situation be kept private. He declined to disclose the nature of her illness other than to say that it is not life- threatening.
The length of her medical leave is ``initially a couple of weeks, but it could go longer depending on what her doctors tell her,'' Lockhart said Monday.
Neither Downey nor the acting chief judge, Anthony Rondolino, knows the nature of Schaeffer's illness, they said Monday.
Downey said he was told Schaeffer directed that the Scientology case be assigned to him.
``I don't know what her reasoning was. I haven't talked to her,'' the judge said.
The church was charged in late 1998 with abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license in the 1995 death of member Lisa McPherson.
Both sides have filed thousands of pages of pleadings and exhibits. Schaeffer was scheduled to hear oral arguments on a motion to dismiss the charges on March 13. Recently, she pushed the trial date back from March until October to give both sides more time to prepare.
When the charges were filed, Schaeffer predicted the case would involve so much work that no regular trial judge would have time to handle it. The case file has grown to eight volumes. At one hearing, Schaeffer told the church's lawyers that she would not be reading any of the several Scientology books they have filed in support of the motion to dismiss.
David Sommer can be reached at (727) 799-7413 or dsommer@ tampatrib.com