Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Special Feature: Judge Whittemore - Off the Record

By Michael S. Hooker

The following is an edited excerpt of an interview with the Hon. James D. Whittemore of the U.S. District Court.

Q. Judge, can you tell us a little about your background ― where you grew up and went to school?

A. I was born in South Carolina, moved down to Jacksonville when I was in elementary school, and actually moved back to South Carolina. My dad was in the trucking business so the Eastern Seaboard was his trail. We moved back to Jacksonville the summer before seventh grade, stayed there until we moved to Tampa after my sophomore year in high school.

Q. I understand that you enjoyed surfing growing up. That’s not exactly a skill set that we normally associate with federal judges.

A. That’s where it started, in Jacksonville. That summer before seventh grade, my parents had a close friend who lived out on the beach, and one of the brothers was my age. Our parents had been close friends, and he introduced me to surfing; I surfed all the time and played golf. I balanced the two ― I had the best of both worlds.

Q. Do you still surf at all?

A. Oh yeah.

Q. Really?

A. That’s a picture in Costa Rica about five years ago, maybe six. I don’t go as much as I used to, not for any reason other than logistics.

Q. You became one of the first public defenders in the Middle District in 1978. What challenges did you face as one of the first federal public defenders here?

A. It was a great experience. We tried our own cases and handled appeals on our own cases, so we got not only trial experience but appellate experience. We argued cases in New Orleans, Jacksonville, Miami, and Atlanta. We got to go to Atlanta and argue before the new Eleventh Circuit; one of my cases eventually made it up to the Supreme Court.

Q. How would you say that experience in the federal public defender’s office helped prepare you for a judgeship?

A. The litigation experience was invaluable. Learning the federal system, the formalities of the federal system compared to the state court system. Our boss was a retired FBI agent who was very thorough and detail-oriented. He would go through your draft pleadings and make a little red check in the margin on the line where there was a typo, misspelling, or grammatical error, and then you’d have to find it. A lot of the time he seemed picky, but we learned to be precise in our writing, and I think that has assisted me in becoming a judge – being a very precise and critical writer and reader of our own work.

Q. You’ve already mentioned that you argued and won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Wainright v. Greenfield. That must have been a heady experience.

A. It was beyond heady, it was a great experience. Preparing for oral argument there is very different from anything else you’ll ever prepare for as a lawyer. I studied right up until the night before. In fact, I was in the library in the Supreme Court and learned a great lesson in preparation – you’re never finished. I found a case that had to do with whether or not the exercise of the right to silence is equivalent to asking for a lawyer, exercising your Sixth Amendment right. I made a little note up in the right-hand corner of my legal pad for that case, and sure enough, during the process of the argument, it was Justice White, who had dissented in Miranda if I’m not mistaken, but also was a proponent of stare decises. He asked me a very pointed question, “You tell me that remaining silent is equivalent to exercising your Sixth Amendment right?” I said, “Yes, sir, that’s exactly what this court said …” He said, “Well, who wrote that opinion?” I pointed at him and said, “You did, Your Honor!” A great experience. It was a hot court.

Q. Why did you decide that you wanted to become a judge?

A. I had applied for a county judgeship and made the short list. I may have applied one more time and didn’t get it and kind of just gave up on that because it’s disrupting when you’re trying to practice. And I remember driving out I-4 and Jim Arnold had a campaign sign, which was probably ’85 or ’86. I knew him well, and I said, “Well, my contemporaries are getting on the bench,” and it just kind of opened up that avenue of interest. It’s not why I applied, but it certainly gave me reason to think that I was at a point in my career where it might be a good time, and it worked out well.

Q. Is there a state or federal judge who you truly admire and who you try to emulate in the way you run your courtroom?

A. I anticipated that question, Michael. As a federal practitioner, the first person who comes to mind is Terry Hodges. I tried our first jury trial as an assistant federal public defender for the office in front of Judge Hodges and learned from him over the years more than, I think, any other judge. He was very serious and stern in the courtroom ― stern in a good way. And he expected us to be prepared. He was a great judge ― a great demeanor. He ruled from the bench for the most part, and we used to marvel at his ability to lean back, look through his glasses, and begin articulating a decision and cite cases and the rules, and I always admired that. 

Q. You’ve been on the state and the federal bench for a combined total of almost 25 years. And you have, if I may say, a reputation of being even-tempered on the bench. How are you able to maintain that disposition with all of the skirmishing among lawyers that typically occurs in contentious cases?

A. I’m glad to hear that because I have to admit that there are times when I wear my emotions on my sleeve, but that’s part of the personality of a judge. I think, for the most part, we try to take a breath and think before we speak, and try to eliminate the tone that so easily creeps into our communications in a courtroom. It’s a constant struggle, not because of the lawyers, I mean that’s certainly a component ― but when you’re in the midst of a deliberative process, I think we attempt to stay focused and not be distracted and get to the answer of that particular question, whatever it may be. That’s a big challenge as a judge.

Q. What do you like best about being a judge?

A. I think the sense of making a difference, of having the opportunity to apply principles of law, whether it be civil or criminal, correctly. That’s what we are asked to do and what we swear to do. That’s what the lawyers and litigants expect. The decision needs to be based on the law and the facts that are in front of a judge. I enjoy that part of it.

Q. What’s the hardest part of being a judge?

A. Sometimes it can get monotonous. Sometimes disputes are seemingly repetitive. That part of it is a challenge and sometimes can get frustrating.

Q. How do you separate your personal and political ideology from the issues that you have to decide in a case?

A. I’ve never had a problem with that. I’ve been asked that question a hundred times by non-lawyers as well as lawyers because that would seem to be to most people one of the most difficult challenges of being a judge. That’s just something that as a lawyer I didn’t let interfere with my advocacy, and I think as a judge, you certainly know it cannot interfere. 

Q. Can you tell us a little about your family? How long you have been married? How many kids do you have?

A. Thirty-seven years last Wednesday, I’ve been married. She’s a trooper. My oldest son is a lawyer who practices with the Wagner, McLaughlin firm, personal injury ― made partner last year. We’ve got a 4-year-old grandson who we are very proud of. My next son is a border patrol agent who’s been in the border patrol more than six years. He’s got brand-new twins, a boy and a girl. And I have a 23-year-old daughter at home who is challenged, special needs. She’s our baby. So a pretty well-rounded family. An older brother is a lawyer in St. Pete. A younger brother is a lawyer here in Tampa at Phelps Dunbar.

Q. Without getting too personal, how has your role as a parent of a specials need child shaped you as a person and even as a judge?

A. That’s a great question. That’s something you live and breathe every moment of your waking day and well into the night during your sleepless moments. I think it makes you appreciate challenges that those with disabilities have and just as importantly, challenges those families face. It’s difficult I think for most people to fully appreciate and understand the challenges of a special needs person and their family.

Q. Judge, last question. What have you found to be the single most fulfilling aspect of your distinguished legal career?

A. Well, that’s a hard one because I feel very, very fortunate to have been selected and appointed to this position. It’s an honor. I think the most fulfilling part is the fact that I’m in a position that the founders recognized as an important component of our system of government ― the judiciary ― the third branch ― and fulfilling that constitutional role is not only an honor, it’s just an absolute privilege. I find that to be very fulfilling.