Friday, January 19, 2018

Joe Henderson: For Judge Cathy, hall of justice is also a hall of sports

I don’t know what your image of a federal judge might be, but chances are it wouldn’t capture Catherine Peek McEwen.

When she isn’t presiding over cases in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the Middle District of Florida, she sings karaoke, teaches Sunday school, coaches softball at Bayshore Little League, loves the Tampa Bay Rays, and decorates her courtroom with all manner of sports memorabilia, including a bobblehead of herself dressed in a Rays uniform.

And, once — in her deep, best-forgotten past — I was her boss for a short time.

Sort of.

More on that in a bit.

She is pretty good at this judge thing. She was recently appointed by Chief Justice John Roberts to a two-year term as a non-voting bankruptcy judge observer of the Judicial Conference of the United States. That group makes policy for the federal court.

Before she was all this, though, Judge Cathy (as they sometimes call her at the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse in downtown Tampa) was a sports writer for the Tampa Tribune and the Tampa Times.

At the time, there weren’t a lot of women in that profession, but she was good. She covered high school sports while I was prep editor at the Trib, which meant I got to assign her to various games.

Her future father-in-law, Trib sports editor Tom McEwen, told me to treat her like any other writer.

I remember she made deadlines, was relentless in trying to get the story right, and could adapt to the strange circumstances everyone in this business occasionally confront — like dictating stories in a phone booth (look it up, kiddies) at night, on deadline, off the top of your head.

"When I had to call in stories from the road, I learned to think quickly and in paragraphs, which is a good skill for lawyer or judge, and articulate concepts in an orderly manner," she said.

She was also competitive, another useful trait. She got the scoop for the Times when the legendary Billy Turner announced he was going back to coach football at Chamberlain High and would be leaving Hillsborough High.

Alas, she had always focused her dreams on the study and practice of law, dating to the time her father, Scotty Peek, who worked as the administrative aide to U.S. Sen. George Smathers of Florida in the 1950s and ‘60s.

On visits there, she said, "I noted many people were lawyers. So, maybe as early as the first grade I decided the way to stay at the exciting place that is the Capitol was to be a lawyer."

So, she left us and graduated cum laude from the Stetson University College of Law.

It was probably a good move.

She was appointed to the federal bench in 2005 after working in private practice representing parties in bankruptcy cases.

Besides being accomplished at the law and generous with her time and skills — she does a lot of pro bono work — Judge Cathy has empathy. Bankruptcy can be a terrifying experience, which explains why she chose the décor for her courtroom.

"Most people first encounter the federal court system with bankruptcy court," she said. "So, we are, more often than not, the face of the third branch in the federal system to the people.

"When people walk into my courtroom, they think, ‘Whew, I’m not scared.’ There is a Longo Gold Glove figurine, K.K. (Kevin Kiermaier) autographed baseball, a photo of Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton high-fivin’ in front of the Green Monster."

People think, she said, " ‘I might be heard here.’ "

I can’t honestly say I saw this coming back in the days when I used to assign her to high school football games, but with the advantage of time and distance, what she has accomplished is not a big surprise.

Good things happen to good, determined and talented people. Judge Cathy qualifies on all three counts.

Editorial: More talk, answers needed on future of USF St. Petersburg

Editorial: More talk, answers needed on future of USF St. Petersburg

The Florida Legislature’s abrupt move to strip the University of South Florida St. Petersburg of its hard-earned separate accreditation and transform it back into a satellite of the major research university lacks detail and an appreciation for histo...
Published: 01/18/18

Another voice: Self-dealing by nursing home owners threatens patient care

The outsourcing of logistical support services, which became commonplace in the U.S. military in the 1990s and later was adopted by state prison systems, has now come to dominate the nursing home industry. And while nursing homes, unlike the military...
Published: 01/17/18
Editorial: Making illegal sewage discharges legal is wrong answer

Editorial: Making illegal sewage discharges legal is wrong answer

Three years into a crisis with its sewer system, St. Petersburg has a dandy new idea for dealing with the environmental fallout of dumping dirty water into the aquifer. Instead of committing to banning the outlawed practice, a consultant suggested th...
Published: 01/16/18
Updated: 01/17/18
Editorial: Tighten substitute teacher rules in Hillsborough

Editorial: Tighten substitute teacher rules in Hillsborough

A substitute teacher at a Plant City elementary school berated a class of fourth graders — and then the school principal. Another compared a student to a stripper. Others were caught napping, hitting children, making sexual remarks, giving students b...
Published: 01/16/18
Updated: 01/17/18
Editorial: Balancing the playing field for workers’ compensation

Editorial: Balancing the playing field for workers’ compensation

For the longest time, injured workers in Florida were basically at the mercy of the whims of employers to treat them fairly. A 2003 law aimed at reducing the cost of workers’ compensation coverage for businesses had the desired impact, but it also di...
Published: 01/16/18

Another voice: Why just Florida?

Cynicism has always been a part of politics, but rarely are politicians so brazen and self-serving as President Donald Trump and his interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, have been over the past week. First they announced a new offshore drilling plan that ...
Published: 01/16/18
Editorial: King’s legacy still relevant in digital age

Editorial: King’s legacy still relevant in digital age

Today’s holiday honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. couldn’t be more timely. At a moment when the nation’s civic dialogue is choking on personal and political division, it is hard to remember an earlier time when role models were role m...
Published: 01/15/18

Another voice: 38 minutes of fear in Hawaii

In 1938, Orson Welles panicked the nation with a false alarm about a Martian invasion in the radio broadcast The War of the Worlds. That was farfetched, of course. But what happened on Saturday, sadly, was not so hard to imagine — or believe.Authorit...
Published: 01/14/18
Updated: 01/16/18
Editorial: Florida’s chance to make it easier to restore civil rights

Editorial: Florida’s chance to make it easier to restore civil rights

As it has for decades, Florida stubbornly clings to an inhumane, inefficient and indefensible system of justice that permanently sentences more than 1.5 million residents to second-class citizenship. This state automatically revokes the right to vote...
Published: 01/13/18
Editorial: Speak out against Trump’s vulgar remarks

Editorial: Speak out against Trump’s vulgar remarks

President Donald Trump’s vulgar outbursts during a White House meeting on immigration are racist and indefensible no matter how he parses them. They are not presidential, they undermine U.S. foreign relations and they do not reflect America’s values....
Published: 01/12/18