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.
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.