"I'm a Democrat, but I supported George [W.] Bush. And I would be very comfortable in having Don Middlebrooks in terms of fairness," said Joseph P. Klock Jr., chairman and managing partner of the Miami-based law firm Steel, Hector & Davis, where the judge previously worked as a senior partner.
"Don's an excellent, excellent judge. . . . He has excellent control over a courtroom. Any personal biases he has, he will never let influence any judicial decision."
Middlebrooks is to hear in his Miami courtroom the Bush campaign's request for an injunction to block the manual counting that got under way Saturday in Palm Beach County, yesterday in Volusia County, and is planned elsewhere in Florida.
Democrats suggest that many votes cast for Vice President Gore were not tallied during the first, machine-run count, or in the recount conducted after Tuesday's election.
Any additional votes could prove decisive in tipping Florida's 25 electoral votes - and the election - to Gore. The Texas governor is clinging to a slender lead in Florida, with some overseas ballots still uncounted.
In an election that has occasioned many firsts, how Middlebrooks handles this unusual case is likely to set a precedent. Historically, the federal judiciary has been reluctant to interfere in the purely political workings of the executive and legislative branches.
"They couldn't have drawn a better judge," agreed Jim Krog, a lobbyist for Steel, Hector. "If the law is with them [the Republicans], he'll be with them."
Middlebrooks, 53, began serving on the federal bench in July 1997. He has more than 25 years of experience in legal practice, most of it as a trial and appellate lawyer in Miami and Palm Beach County.
An Orlando native and a 1972 graduate of the University of Florida law school, Middlebrooks worked for Florida Gov. Reuben Askew before joining Steel, Hector in 1977. Middlebrooks developed particular expertise in First Amendment law, and he was considered for appointment to the state Supreme Court in 1986.
Middlebrooks' friends and former legal colleagues have praised him as intellectually honest, confident in his reading of the law, and unafraid to do what he thinks is right.
Klock said Middlebrooks had expertise in constitutional and administrative law and was active in children's legal issues. He described Middlebrooks as a Democrat with an independent streak.