Thursday, May 1, 2014

Judge Moody Goes Off the Record

By Michael S. Hooker

The following is an edited excerpt of an interview with the Hon. James S. Moody Jr., U.S. District Court judge, conducted by Michael S. Hooker.

Q. Judge, I know that you are from Plant City. Did you grow up there?

A. I was born and raised in Plant City.

Q. Now, you practiced law in Plant City before becoming a judge, as I understand it.

A. Yes.

Q. What kinds of work did you do?

A. I was a small-town trial lawyer. By that I mean I tried all kinds of cases except medical malpractice because all the doctors in town are your friend so you don’t do medical malpractice. I did very little bankruptcy mainly because of Judge Paskay, who would chew anybody up if they weren’t, you know, frequent practitioners of bankruptcy. And I did some criminal work as a young lawyer, but not a whole lot. But I did every other kind of civil trial that you can imagine, which actually serves me well as a judge because I know a little bit about a lot of different things.

Q. You have an impressive history of community and civic involvement, and I’m just going to mention a few because it’s a very long list. You served on the board of directors of the United Way, the board of directors of Hillsborough County Bar Foundation, you were president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association, chair of the Children and Families Work Group, president of the Lions Club, served on the University of Florida Law Center Association Board of Trustees. That’s an impressive list, but the thing that I find most interesting and little bit unusual is that you continued that involvement in civic and community affairs even while sitting on the bench. Why is that?

A. Well, I just think that is important. And I did that more as a state judge than I do as a federal judge. I just don’t seem to get asked as frequently as a federal judge to get involved. Although, I think I was on the bar foundation board for a while as a federal judge. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older now that I’ve slowed down in that regard, but I just always thought that civic contribution is important.

Q. I saw in your bio that you’ve actually taught a lot. You taught a number of courses over the years at various judicial educational conferences, and you’ve also taught at the University of Florida and served as a mock trial judge with Stetson College of Law. Do you like teaching?

A. Well I do enjoy that and, as a matter of fact, when I take senior status, that’s one thing I probably will consider, is doing some teaching. The University of Florida has talked to me some about that. Part of that was when I was a state circuit judge teaching courses at our annual educational conferences, and then some of it, I’ve been doing some internship programs with the students at University of Florida once a year, and I’ve enjoyed that student involvement. And then during the summers I have student interns come in and work here in the courthouse. I work with them on legal writing and drafting, that sort of thing.

Q. I know that you were a state judge for about five years before being appointed to the federal court?

A. Almost six years.

Q. What would you say is the biggest difference between serving as a state judge and now as a federal judge?

A. The biggest difference for me is the contact with lawyers. I understand things have changed since they have the new state courthouse, but when I was a state judge, lawyers would just drop in and say hello and sit down and chat. We’d have hearings and a lot of times you could joke with the lawyers, and I enjoyed that. If I ever felt like I was sitting in my office and wanted to go talk to somebody, you could just walk out in the hallway and there were always lawyers out in the hallway. Well that’s not the way it is in federal court. Lawyers are rarely in federal court, not out in the hallway in front of your courtroom. They very rarely come by to say hello. We just … we’re much more cloistered here, I suppose. Bill Levens tells me that the new state courthouse is almost the same now.

Q. Federal court is much more paper-driven, at least from my standpoint. Most motions are not heard but decided on the briefs. What are the pluses and minuses of that approach as opposed to the state court system?

A. Well, under the federal rules, every motion has to be accompanied by a legal memorandum, and a lot of times that’s unnecessary, but it does help the judge get prepared for what the issue is. Once you’ve read a memo on both sides, there is not much need, at least that’s how most judges think about it, there is not much need for an oral argument. I still like having hearings, so I’ll still have hearings in a lot of my cases. As a matter of fact, I think you’ve had hearings in my courtroom. I do my hearings down at the counsel table.

Q. Well, I do remember that. You come right down and sit with the lawyers. Why do you do that?

A. Well, the first day I had a hearing as a federal judge, it just happened to be a hearing that only one side showed up. So I’ve got a lawyer on one side, an empty chair on the other, and I’m sitting up on the bench in my robe. And so I’m asking the lawyer about the case, what’s going on with it, and he’s so nervous that his voice is quavering. And I said, gosh, you know, I’m not here to make somebody scared, and I’m just not going to do it this way anymore. And so from that day forward, I’ve gone down to the counsel table. I thought I would put counsel more at ease that way, although I’ve had some lawyers tell me it’s worse because you’re sitting right there. But I thought I’d be putting them more at ease, number one, and then number two, I think I can control the flow of information more efficiently. I can say, “Ok, I’ve heard enough,” and look at the other lawyer and say, “What do you say about that?”

Q. You’ve obviously served on the bench for almost 20 years now. Is there any one or two cases that stand out more than the others, in that the case had really stimulating or interesting legal issues that you recall?

A. Well … the first one that comes to mind is the [Sami] Al-Arian case, and that was really interesting because it was a top-secret case. I had to have a safe delivered to my office, which was kept under lock and key, [for] the top-secret documents. I never even opened the safe. I never went and looked at any of those documents because I didn’t think it was necessary for me to try the case. 
Then I had the trial of the president of the Outlaw motorcycle gang, and he was convicted of murder. That was a really interesting case to find out about the inner-workings of the Outlaw motorcycle gang. 

As a state trial judge, one of my most interesting cases was as a divorce judge in which Ray Alley represented a bank vice president, and another lawyer represented the husband. They didn’t have any children, and they were fighting over a parrot ― Harvey the Parrot. And the husband had taken Harvey the Parrot, and she wanted the parrot. So they were squabbling back and forth. They came in for a visitation hearing for Harvey the Parrot. The husband didn’t want to let her have visitation. His given reason was that he didn’t think she would return Harvey; I think the real reason was whatever he could do to antagonize her, he was going to do. So anyway, I ordered visitation with Harvey, so she picked up Harvey and took him for half a week or whatever and then brought a parrot back. Two weeks later, we had another emergency hearing. This time it was the husband saying that she didn’t bring back Harvey.  She had brought back another parrot. So I asked her about that. I put her under oath and asked her, she said, “Oh no, that’s Harvey, I brought the parrot back like you ordered me to.”

And so I turned to the husband and said, “Well what makes you think this isn’t Harvey? Is it the same kind of parrot?” 


“Does he look like Harvey? Is it the same size? So what makes you think it’s not Harvey?”

“Well, this parrot likes me and Harvey never liked me.”

So he said he wanted a DNA test. I said, “You can’t be serious!”

“Yes, I want a DNA test.”

I said, “You know, I do child support hearings, paternity hearings, and I know that DNA tests cost about $700. My guess is this parrot didn’t cost $700, and now, even if it’s not Harvey, you’ve got another parrot.” 

“I want Harvey, and I want a DNA test.”

Well, I said, “If this is not Harvey, what are you going to do a DNA test on?”

He said, “I still have Harvey’s cage, and the feathers fall out from time to time, and so I’ve got some of Harvey’s feathers.” 

I said, “Ok, I’ll allow you to do a DNA test.” 

So he paid for a DNA test, and it was not Harvey! So then we had a contempt hearing. So here comes Ray Alley, my former law partner, representing this meek and mild ― most of the time ― female bank vice president knowing that she’s getting ready to go to jail.

Q. For switching the bird.  I was going to ask you next what’s the funniest thing that happened in your courtroom ― that might have been it.

A. That was the funniest thing that’s ever happened.

Q. I attended a seminar that you spoke at a few years ago, and you mentioned that it seemed like every other brief you were getting, one lawyer was accusing the other lawyer of being “disingenuous.” That seemed to be the word du jour. Are there any things that you see lawyers doing on a routine basis that you wish you weren’t seeing?

A. Well, what you just asked about is a good example. When you read a memorandum, it seems like the first three or four pages are all about all the bad things the other lawyer has done, but that’s really something that’s irrelevant to the decision that I’m trying to make so why waste three or four pages? You’ve only got a certain limited number of pages. So if they would just leave out telling me all of the bad things the other lawyer has done, it would help me get to the issue more quickly, and I could read the brief more quickly.

Q. When they built this courthouse, they obviously built in the capacity to use a lot of technology at trials. What kinds of technology do you like to see being used when you try a case?

A. Actually, the best one is the document presentation with the computer system through the overhead projector. A lawyer can scan all the documents and have them on the computer, and when he questions the witness, say “Let me show you document 323,” somebody at the table pushes a button and document 323 comes up on the screen instead of the lawyer coming over to the table with banker boxes full of documents, fumbling through to pull 323, and then you’ve got to worry about getting document 323 back in the right place in the box or else you know you’ve lost it forever.

Q. Judge, what kinds of hobbies or interests do you have? What do you like to do when you’re not here?

A. Well, I like to play golf, and my wife and I go snow skiing about once a year. I love doing things with my children and grandchildren; like last night we had a cookout at my son’s house.  Most of the time we’ll have a cookout at my condo, but I’ve got five grandchildren now so we’re a pretty large crowd when we get together for our cookouts. The crowd has just about outgrown my condo.

Q. What would you consider your most substantial, personal or non-professional accomplishment? That’s a hard one.

A. What I’m most proud of is that I’ve raised four children ― all have jobs and never were on drugs
and never been in jail, so I guess that’s my number one.

Q. Judge, do you have any advice for young lawyers entering the profession?

A. My advice is that remember that you need to enjoy what you’re doing, and if you’re always arguing with another lawyer, that’s hard to enjoy. So try to get along and try to work together toward getting your case to trial. If you can remember that the ultimate goal is going to trial, not fussing and fighting with the other lawyer, hopefully it will make your life more enjoyable.