Chief judge returns to Scientology case


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

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."