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Order in the court means order in the court

If you are going to appear before Bankruptcy Judge Timothy Corcoran, there are a few procedures you should observe:

Make sure your pleadings are written precisely as Corcoran requests in his memoranda. Do not forget the margins. Do not use paper clips.

Make sure your male clients have on a tie and preferably a jacket. If they do not, be prepared to explain why not.

In court, when multiple cases are called, line up from left to right in the order called and give the judge the case name first and the case number second. Then, go back and sit down in the galley. Do not sit at the counsel's table and, for heaven's sake, do not put your briefcase on it.

Those are only a few of the rules strictly enforced by Corcoran, who came to Tampa late last year to help oversee one of the nation's busiest bankruptcy courts.

"I think it is fair and true that I place a high premium on compliance of rules of court," Corcoran said. By enforcing all the rules uniformly, he said, he is leveling the playing field and bringing certainty to the process.

"I'm convinced the justice we dispense here is fairer and quicker and more predictable and that's what the people of the United States pay me to do," Corcoran said.

In Tampa, where lawyers are used to the less formal ways of judges Alexander Paskay and Thomas Baynes, Corcoran's approach has caused something of an uproar.

At best, Corcoran is described as a strict constructionist. At worst, a nitpicking, power-hungry control freak.

Corcoran is 48, and his light hair is graying, although the face beneath it is boyishly young. His build is slight, perhaps a testimony to his avid tennis playing.

Corcoran's appointment to the Tampa bankruptcy bench marks a return to the city in which he practiced law for 14 years with Carlton, Fields, Ward, Emmanuel, Smith & Cutler before being appointed to Orlando bankruptcy court in 1989.

During an interview he drinks coffee and answers questions thoughtfully and deliberately. Despite his busy docket, he is generous with his time and offers to make himself available again.

Corcoran acknowledges he finds it necessary to repeat his rules often and send back pleadings to be redone. Critics say that slows down the process in a court that can ill afford delay and ends up costing already strapped clients more money.

But other lawyers say every judge has his or her peculiarities and it's the lawyers' jobs to figure them out.

"I don't think they're unreasonable. From the standpoint of trying a case in front of him, the rules are designed to work better," said Ed Waller, a longtime bankruptcy lawyer and president of the Tampa Bay Bankruptcy Bar.

Corcoran characterizes the complaints as "absurd pettiness." But, then, that's what unhappy lawyers say about his rules.

"He asked a lawyer today if he put his briefcase on his dining room table," recalled Tampa lawyer Harvey Muslin. "It's petty, but there are a lot worse things."

Worse things have been said of Corcoran. He has been painted as an abusive judge who degrades and embarrasses lawyers in open court and who demonstrates disrespect and even contempt for lawyers and their clients.

"He's got a very bad attitude," complained Donald Zachow, a Land O'Lakes resident whose lawyer was reprimanded because Zachow had introduced himself to Corcoran. When lawyer Jamie Proctor attempted to explain why Zachow needed more time to make a payment, Corcoran cut her off, ultimately threatening to have her removed from court if she persisted.

"And that was it. He called the next case. I couldn't even speak at all. And he would not let my lawyer talk," Zachow said.

Lawyers, of course, are much more circumspect in their remarks about Corcoran _ when they comment at all. Some cautiously refer to Corcoran's "judicial temperament" or "judicial demeanor" as lacking.

Orlando lawyer Jerry Brewer is one of the few willing to speak publicly about the judge. Brewer, who studiously avoids appearing before Corcoran, said he tried to get the Central Florida Bankruptcy Law Association to "go head to head with Corcoran and try to moderate what he was doing." But the regional Bar association, which Corcoran was responsible for establishing, did nothing.

"He never degraded me in open court, but I saw him do it to other people. I saw him tell clients to go after their lawyers for malpractice," Brewer said.

Says Corcoran: "I'm sure there has been an occasion where I have referred to a lawyer's incompetence in court, just as I have commented on how ably a case has been handled. Ninety-nine percent of the lawyers do a competent job. In a few circumstances where I have repeated problems with an attorney's competence, I speak plainly."

Several lawyers in Orlando and Tampa who colleagues say have been the recipients of Corcoran's scorn either declined to comment or denied any incidents.

"Of course it would be suicide to criticize a judge you practice in front of," said James Foster, an Orlando lawyer who said he enjoys a good rapport with Corcoran.

In addition to deciding the size of lawyers' fees, bankruptcy judges have absolute authority in their courtrooms.

Time and again, lawyers contacted for this story cited a Florida Bar rule that prohibits lawyers from "impugning the qualifications and integrity of judges or other officers" of the court.

"I personally think you're seeing the true moral fiber of lawyers," said Orlando lawyer Andrea Ruff, who has taken on Corcoran publicly. "It's the public that suffers."

In 1992, Ruff accused Corcoran of bias against her after Corcoran advised defendants to ask for her removal as trustee. Had the defendant succeeded, Corcoran would have been clear to have her permanently removed as a trustee.

"Over three years, he was constantly on me, upbraiding me, criticizing me. I tried to correct everything, until I finally understood he was going to try to destroy me," Ruff said.

On the advice of Jacksonville bankruptcy Judge George Proctor, who presided over the bias hearing, Corcoran removed himself from some of Ruff's cases. The rest were subsequently reassigned when Orlando received two new judges late last year.

While preparing to appeal a high-profile case later assumed by Proctor, Ruff said she discovered notable exchanges that occurred in the original proceedings with Corcoran were missing from the transcripts.

An early exchange _ in which Corcoran supposedly tells Ruff she is going to lose her trustee case _ is missing. The comments are important because they indicate Corcoran's bias against her, Ruff said.

When Ruff asked the court reporter for her original steno notes, the court reporter said she didn't have them anymore.

Ruff filed a motion objecting to the transcript. In the motion, she said it was generally known locally that Corcoran edits transcripts and that she and Brewer had been told by court reporters that Corcoran edits transcripts.

Corcoran, who delivers many of his decisions verbally, acknowledges that he edits findings of fact and conclusions of law for the sake of clarity, grammar, style and "to ensure they read as well as I hoped they would when they were dictated." And he delivers a standard spiel to that effect in court.

"Have I ever changed a transcript? The answer is categorically no," Corcoran said. "I have never asked a court reporter to change a transcript" unless it contained an error.

There is almost universal respect for Corcoran's intelligence and his knowledge of the law. Even Ruff is willing to concede that Corcoran "desires to do a good job."

But the criticisms of his procedures and character and the suggestions of impropriety are distressing to Corcoran, who has devoted his career to the law.

"One of the most painful parts of this job is to have the feeling that not only is what I'm doing not appreciated, but to hear the kinds of petty and unfair criticisms that are implied in your questions that are all based on distortions and half-truths," Corcoran said.

Corcoran clearly is uncomfortable discussing his private life. He reluctantly reveals that he is divorced and has no children. He doesn't offer the information that his former wife is Clearwater lawyer Sally Harris Foote. A music aficionado, Corcoran took up the piano four years ago and relaxes by practicing on his Steinway.

"There is not a day passes that I don't go over in my mind how I did in court that day," Corcoran said. "I set a very high standard for myself and expect the best of others as well.

"Perfection is something we can strive for, but never attain. That doesn't dissuade me from trying, however."