Latest News

Judge weighing Schiavo's fate known for by-the-book ways

TAMPA, Fla.—Congress broke with tradition by meeting on Palm Sunday to pass a bill that could get Terri Schiavo back on a feeding tube. The president of the United States interrupted his vacation and a good night's sleep to sign the bill into law.

But the man with the real power to make the decision, U.S. District Judge James Whittemore, made it clear Monday that he won't be stampeded. He adjourned his court hearing on Schiavo's fate without making any decision.

People who know him aren't surprised that he would handle this extraordinary case in a completely ordinary way. Lawyers say his hallmark is a by-the-book demeanor.

"He's very deliberate, cautious, well-reasoned," said Lansing Scriven, president-elect of the Hillsborough County Bar Association, who appeared before Whittemore several times when Whittemore was a state court judge.

The bar association's current president offered a similar view. "I don't think he'll be persuaded by popular belief, nor do I think he'll respond to philosophical pressures," said Bill Schifino.

It's hard to place Whittemore on an ideological grid. He's a registered Republican who was appointed to the bench by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

In 15 years as a judge in federal and state court, Whittemore has made headlines in the Tampa Bay area for issues as diverse as professional football and baseball, school uniforms, outlaw motorcycle gangs and sex shops.

Lawyers who have come before him say he's not the type to showboat when the press shows up. And his rulings show no particular tilt on the political scale.

"He couldn't care less about the spotlight," said Tom Morrison, a lawyer who argued before Whittemore in a lawsuit challenging the building of a football stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with public money.

Morrison lost the case but still praises Whittemore for ruling clearly and keeping the case from becoming a circus despite the combination of football, politics, public money and the media.

Morrison, like others, doubts Whittemore was glad to get the Schiavo case. Judges are assigned cases at random.

"I don't know that anybody would relish being part of the Schiavo case," Morrison said.

George Greer, the Florida circuit judge who's made most of the critical rulings in the Schiavo case over the years, has been so vilified by those who disagree with his rulings that he had to leave his own church.

With that backdrop, Whittemore's friends and family were skittish Monday in talking about him.

"He'll follow the law. Beyond that, I don't think there are other factors I should comment on," said Kent Whittemore, the judge's brother and a prominent lawyer in nearby St. Petersburg. "Personal life has no bearing on it."

Whittemore earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Florida and his law degree from Stetson University College of Law before joining the federal public defender's office in 1978, where he served three years before going into private practice. In 1990, he was appointed circuit judge in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located.

Cases he handled as a state judge included the stadium suit, in which he allowed ballot language for an initiative to use public money to build Raymond James Stadium for the Buccaneers. He also sided with the city of Tampa when it was sued by Hillsborough County for allowing a sex shop too close to county residents.

He's known for doing his own research. Schifino remembers in one case Whittemore got out his own law book and found a more relevant example than either side could muster to make sure he was following precedent when he made his rulings.

The Florida Bar's young lawyers' division named Whittemore top state judge in 1999. The next year, after 10 years as a state judge, he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to fill a lifetime position on the federal bench.

The issues got more complicated on the federal bench.

Whittemore had a second high-profile sports case in 2001, ruling that a Cuban defector, pitcher Rolando Viera, couldn't skip the Major League Baseball draft if he wanted to play. He also rejected a claim by a group of parents of elementary school children who wanted him to declare school uniforms unconstitutional. The 2002 ruling was among the first in the nation to address mandatory school uniforms.

Schifino said Whittemore's time as a state judge would make him sensitive to the history of the Schiavo case, which had been reviewed in state court for more than a decade before it came to him.

"The judge will take a clean, fresh look at whatever he's been asked to look at, but at the same time, as with any member of our judiciary, I think they respect the notion of judicial independence," Schifino said.


(Bierman reports for The Miami Herald.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Need to map