Ready for her next big chapter

And it's a good thing. Nearly 6,000 cases await Catherine McEwen's arrival as a U.S. bankruptcy judge in Tampa.

Published August 20, 2005

When Catherine Peek McEwen is sworn in Monday as a U.S. bankruptcy judge in Tampa, she won't have much time to reflect on how she's making history: about 6,000 cases are stacked up waiting for her.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court's Middle District of Florida is the third-busiest bankruptcy jurisdiction in the nation, with 52,207 cases filed last year. It has eight judges.

When McEwen takes over the docket previously handled by now-retired Judge Thomas Baynes Jr., she'll become the first female judge to serve in the bankruptcy court's Tampa Division. She downplays the accomplishment.

"I'm no pioneer," she said. "The federal courthouse already houses a bunch of great female judges, including my former high school English teacher, Susan Bucklew ... Being a woman just doesn't matter."

McEwen said she is ready to go to work.

"Except for a few semesters in law school, I've worked since the ninth grade, starting out at Chan's Toy Store," she said. One of her new colleagues, Bankruptcy Judge Michael Williamson, calls her "one of Central Florida's hardest-working and finest commercial litigators."

McEwen, 49, was a sports reporter for the Tampa Tribune and Tampa Times before she earned her law degree from Stetson University College of Law 23 years ago. It was at Stetson that she developed an interest in bankruptcy law, taking a class from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Alexander Paskay.

She has specialized in commercial litigation, frequently representing creditors in bankruptcy court and serving as a mediator by appointment of the bankruptcy court. She has been a shareholder in a large law firm and a solo practitioner and served as president of the Tampa Bay Bankruptcy Bar Association. This week she has been busy closing her private practice.

McEwen said one of the toughest parts of her job will be ruling against lawyers who have been her friends and colleagues. They've been used to an informal relationship with "Cathy," as she's known to most people. "Rulings are always going to disappoint half the people," she said. "I hope people will understand that what I'd be doing is my job."

A big challenge facing all the judges is dealing with sweeping changes in the bankruptcy law that take effect Oct. 17. McEwen said implementing the changes will make her job more interesting.

The oldest of six children of Scott and Lillian Peek, McEwen attended Tampa schools, including Plant High School, Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida. "I know the bay area community from the streets as a regular person, and I think that will help me in this job in particular," she said.

McEwen enjoys working with children when she's not doing legal work. She manages a Little League girls softball team and teaches sixth-grade Sunday School at Christ the King Catholic Church.

"Last year the class had 36 kids and 24 were boys; if that doesn't show that I have patience, nothing does," she joked.

Though divorced, she carries the McEwen name from her marriage to WFLA-Ch. 8 executive Rick McEwen, son of longtime Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen.

Bankruptcy judges are appointed by the U.S. Court of Appeals and receive an annual salary of $149,132, set by Congress.

Helen Huntley can be reached at huntley@sptimes.com or 727 893-8230.