When Beverly Hills attorney Shelly McMillan went to court a few years ago to represent a client in a job discrimination case, she noticed that the judge was exceptionally intelligent, hard-working and fair, discouraged rancor in her courtroom and had a crack staff.
But there was one other quality that set judge Florence-Marie Cooper apart.
She could type as fast as most lawyers could speak.
"She would be typing on her computer while the witnesses were testifying, and she was faster than the court reporters," McMillan recalled.
Those skills are the product of an unusually modest background that has not stopped Cooper from taking on some of society's most powerful institutions. Formerly a Los Angeles Superior Court judge and now on the federal bench, she delivered slaps this week to two quite different concerns: County-USC Medical Center and Disney's Winnie the Pooh.
On Thursday, she issued a tentative ruling that halted Los Angeles County's plans to cut 100 beds from County-USC -- and also barred the county from closing the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey. On Friday, she dealt a setback to the Walt Disney Co. by ruling that the granddaughter of A.A. Milne, Pooh's creator, cannot reclaim merchandising rights to the beloved, and lucrative, bear.
Cooper, 63, is in many ways a rarity as a U.S. District Court judge. To begin with, she never graduated from college. She became a lawyer in her mid-30s after working as a legal secretary -- the source, apparently, of her superior typing skills. According to a biographical sketch published by the Los Angeles Daily Journal, she was encouraged by a lawyer to enroll in Beverly (now Whittier) Law School in Los Angeles, which had a program for people without college degrees. She graduated as class valedictorian in 1975.
That may not be as unusual a career path as it sounds. "There was a time when it wasn't fashionable for a woman to aspire to be a lawyer," said Los Angeles attorney Peter Smoot. "That kind of changed in maybe the '70s, so there are a number of women who had another career, saw that they now had a chance to do what they wanted to do and went to law school later in life."
Smoot, who has tried cases before Cooper, said she is "not stuffy, she's not stuck up, she's very plain and down to earth, and her background may have something to do with that."
Despite that modest background, Cooper, who declined an interview for this article, has spent far more time on the bench than in front of it, serving for years as a court commissioner before being appointed a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge by former Gov. George Deukmejian in 1990. Two years later, Gov. Pete Wilson elevated her to Superior Court and, in 1999, President Clinton named her to her current job.
She has handled numerous high-profile cases in her career, including the so-called Ninja Murders case, in which two brothers were convicted in Superior Court in the 1985 deaths of their parents in Brentwood. Also in Superior Court, Cooper issued a landmark decision in 1999 when she scheduled the first trial in the U.S. or Europe to settle claims by Holocaust survivors seeking compensation from companies that allegedly defrauded or exploited them.
William Shernoff, a lawyer representing some of the Holocaust survivors, said he found Cooper to be "judicially courageous" in her willingness to break new legal ground.
As her ruling in the Holocaust, County-USC and Disney cases suggest, Cooper does not shy away from controversy. In one highly unusual decision recently, she removed a fellow judge, J. Spencer Letts, from a criminal case because of remarks he made in a pretrial conference questioning the credibility of defendants who take the witness stand.
She also has the ability, attorneys say, to separate her own feelings from the law, as in her 1997 dismissal of a lawsuit against the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. The suit, filed by a man whose son was killed by an intoxicated, off-duty sheriff's deputy, demanded that off-duty deputies be banned from carrying their guns when they are drinking.
"When I get to be queen of the world and I get to adopt all the rules ... I would like to issue an order that says to the sheriff, 'You've got to do something about this problem,' " Cooper said at the time. "I don't believe the law authorizes me to do that."
Attorneys say few local judges are more universally respected.
"I think she is one of the best, if not the best trial judge that I've ever appeared before," said Deputy Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Patrick R. Dixon. "She's smart, she works hard -- extremely hard. She has a wonderful judicial temperament, treats all parties
"She is everything a judge should be: patient, careful, considerate, compassionate," said defense lawyer Peter Steingard. "I don't always win, but every time I've appeared in front of her, I've walked away knowing that I got a fair shake."
Smoot and McMillan appeared before Cooper on opposing sides in a trial involving claims by a man who said he was subjected to racial discrimination at manufacturer Eaton Corp. When the trial led to a hung jury, Cooper ruled that the plaintiff, Niles DeGroot, had been discriminated against, and ordered Eaton to pay him $1.25 million.
Smoot, who represented Eaton, said he had been shocked by the ruling, which he still believes was wrong. (It was overturned on appeal, he said.) Still, he hardly holds a grudge.
"I think she's wonderful," he said. "In terms of what you want from a judge, which is open-minded and fair, you can't do much better.... I'm telling you she's fair, and she decided the case against me."