Both are former federal prosecutors, formidable in their courtrooms. They are also fast friends, contemporaries who rose through the legal ranks in New York City during the gritty 1970’s and the more prosperous 1980’s.
And, for the next few months, Denise L. Cote, 58, and Barbara S. Jones, 57, United States District Court judges in Manhattan, will be front and center in the trials of WorldCom’s former chief executive, Bernard J. Ebbers, and the investment banks and auditors that advised the company as it spiraled into bankruptcy.
Although Judge Cote and Judge Jones have presided over major trials since President Bill Clinton appointed each of them to the bench nearly a decade ago, their oversight of the WorldCom cases is drawing the national spotlight. WorldCom, after all, remains the largest company to have filed for bankruptcy protection in the United States. Its failure in 2002, prosecutors say, was a result of an $11 billion accounting fraud that cost thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in losses for investors.
Mr. Ebbers’s criminal trial has just begun in Judge Jones’s courtroom, and the civil case brought by investors, overseen by Judge Cote, is scheduled to start Feb. 28. But both judges have already made enough pretrial rulings to reveal quite a bit about how they approach their work and manage their courtrooms. Their handling of these cases may also prove to be a model for future trials involving accusations of corporate fraud.
Neither judge agreed to be interviewed for this article. But interviews with former colleagues, friends and lawyers who have appeared before them paint a picture of two proficient and demanding people who dispatch justice in a quick, no-nonsense way.
Lawyers involved in the WorldCom securities litigation, for example, say Judge Cote has been a tough taskmaster since she was assigned the case in 2002. An exceedingly complex matter in which 42 class actions brought by investors were consolidated, it is one of the largest securities cases in history. Defendants include former directors and officers of WorldCom; Arthur Andersen, its auditor; and more than a dozen investment banks – including J. P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Deutsche Bank – that sold WorldCom securities to investors.
A measure of Judge Cote’s efficiency was her order that settlement negotiations begin less than a month after the New York State Common Retirement Fund, the lead plaintiff, filed the class-action complaint. She accelerated the discovery process, in which both sides interview witnesses and request documents, completing it at least nine months ahead of schedule. At the request of the New York fund’s lead counsel, Judge Cote also limited depositions to 60 days for each side, well below the hundreds requested by the lawyers representing the defendants and far fewer than the 1,200 depositions allowed in the Enron litigation.
Judge Jones has been equally expeditious in the early days of Mr. Ebbers’s trial, lawyers said. Despite the intense media scrutiny, they said, she has kept a firm schedule and treated both sides evenly. In pretrial hearings, she chastised prosecutors for failing to demonstrate why certain evidence should be allowed in the proceedings. But she has also swatted down requests from Mr. Ebbers’s defense lawyers, who were seeking immunity for friendly witnesses.
For all their proficiency, the two judges are something of an anomaly in New York’s fractious legal world, people who know both women say. Their superb credentials were earned by making friends, not enemies, these people say.