TAMPA, Fla. – U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore (search) has seen fallen preachers, a motorcycle gang leader and a crusading Cuban ballplayer in his courtroom before becoming the latest member of the bench to be drawn into the Terri Schiavo (search) right-to-die case.
Whittemore heard arguments Monday on whether to order Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted, hours after Congress rushed through a law to let the parents of the severely brain-damaged woman take their case to federal court.
After the parents' attorneys arrived at the Tampa courthouse in middle of the night to file their lawsuit, Whittemore was chosen at random to hear the case, and court clerks called him to wake him. With that, the judge set about reading the filings.
Longtime colleagues describe Whittemore, 52, as thoughtful, fair and down-to-earth, not the least flamboyant.
"He is a highly, highly regarded judge," said Tampa lawyer John Fitzgibbons. "He is highly intelligent and has just an excellent judicious temperament. He will allow all sides to state their position, to have their say."
Whittemore, appointed to the federal bench by President Clinton (search) in 1999, is not known to display any political leanings.
Fitzgibbons said those who have criticized previous rulings in the case will not have an easy time accusing Whittemore of bias.
"He will call it as he sees it. You could not ask for a better or fairer referee," the lawyer said. "Everyone will be treated very fairly. It's almost a shame that there are not cameras allowed in federal courts. It would be such an incredibly fair proceeding it would be good for the country to see."
One of Whittemore's biggest cases was the trial of elders from Greater Ministries, a Tampa church whose leaders were accused of bilking nearly $450 million from the faithful in a sophisticated Ponzi scheme.
Whittemore also presided over the trial of Outlaws motorcycle gang leader James Lee "Frank" Wheeler and the prosecution of a group of corrupt Manatee County sheriff's deputies.
In the civil arena, Whittemore ruled against the unsuccessful 2001 bid by Cuban pitcher Rolando Viera to rewrite the rules of being a free agent.
In 2002, he sided with the Polk County School District's efforts to adopt a dress code that a group of parents had argued violated their rights to raise their children as they saw fit.
Born in Walterboro, S.C., in 1952, Whittemore earned an undergraduate from the University of Florida in 1974 and a law degree from Stetson College of Law in 1977. he was later appointed as an assistant federal public defender in Tampa.
He went on to spend a decade as a judge in the Circuit Court system and was named outstanding jurist of 1999 by the Florida Bar's Young Lawyers Division.