By James Hellegaard
Friends and colleagues talk about Judge James S. Moody’s (JD 72) sense of humor and his understated manner. Judge Moody likes his courtroom to be a place where everyone can be relaxed and focused. But that’s not always easy, especially for anxious lawyers who don’t know what to expect in his courtroom.
“When lawyers come in front of a judge, they’re nervous, just as anybody would be coming into court,” says Judge Moody, who earned both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida. “A lot of times, if you can soften the edge with some humor or something personal, it makes them relax and they can think more clearly and make their arguments more comfortably.”
While his sense of humor, which has been compared to that of Bob Newhart, has served him well as a judge, he knows its limits. When people’s lives and lawyers’ careers are riding on the outcome, there can be little room for a joke, no matter how well timed and delivered.
“I think it’s harder to be humorous when you’re in the middle of a trial, particularly when you have a lot of lawyers, because you have members of the public sitting in the audience watching,” explains Judge Moody, who serves on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. “They don’t really understand if a judge makes a joke. Sometimes they might interpret that as the judge making fun of the lawyer or the lawyer’s case or the lawyer’s argument.”
Light-hearted moments are particularly hard to come by when you’re presiding over one of the most important terrorism trials in the nation, as Judge Moody was in the 2005 trial of Sami Al-Arian, a popular computer science professor at the University of South Florida. Al-Arian, along with three co-defendants, was accused of helping to organize and finance the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings in Israel and its occupied territories.
The trial would last for six months and garner considerable media attention from around the world. In the end, Al-Arian, 48, entered a plea deal, agreeing to admit guilt and accept a possible sentence of 46 to 57 months and eventual deportation from America. Prosecutors agreed to join defense attorneys in recommending a sentence at the low end of the range, but the judge chose to impose the maximum sentence allowed by the plea bargain.
“You are a master manipulator,” he told Al-Arian at his May 2006 sentencing. “You looked your neighbors in the eyes and said you had nothing to do with Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This trial exposed that as a lie. The evidence was clear in this case that you were a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”
Throughout the trial Judge Moody faced many tough decisions. After much consternation, he denied defense motions to move the trial out of Tampa. He also held that prosecutors would have to prove the defendants knew the money they raised would pay for terrorism. Even before the trial started, Judge Moody took measures he had not taken before, such as issuing a questionnaire to a pool of 500 people to help weed out those who already had formed an opinion about the case or for some reason couldn’t serve on a jury for a long trial, and setting up a system to make it easier for the media to access evidence that was being presented.
“A lot of it was a learning experience,” he says.
For Judge Moody, it’s all part of his responsibilities as a judge. His former judicial assistant, Patty Coone, remarked to the Tampa Tribune last year that she remembers Judge Moody telling her “we worked for the people, the people paid our salaries … We always needed to accommodate them if we could.”
“As a judge you often tend to forget that,” Judge Moody says.
“You get caught up in ‘judgeitis.’ And you need to always keep in mind that when the public calls, they’re the ones who are paying us. We’re working for them.”
The Home Court
From the time he was a child growing up in the small Florida town of Plant City in eastern Hillsborough County, he was known to everyone as Jimmy. His family called the area home since the end of the 19th century when his great uncle, and later his grandfather, arrived.
“Wherever you went in town, whether it was to the playground or to the movies or to get a hamburger, there was always somebody who knew who you were,” Moody recalls. “It was like having a town full of parents. If you did something out of line they’d tell your parents, so it was just like having your parents there.”
His father, James Moody Sr., was a lawyer in town and joined John Trinkle to establish the law firm of Trinkle and Moody. Jimmy Moody can’t recall when he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer.
“It seems like I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer without knowing why,” he says. “I never really stopped to think about it. I remember when I was a little kid and we were playing cowboys and Indians, I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer. My friends would want to be a fireman or a policeman. I just always knew I wanted to be a lawyer.”
Judge Moody, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 2000, previously served as a Hillsborough circuit court judge. Though his family name was well established in the area at the time he ran for judge, he set out on foot in the summer of 1994, with his family in tow, campaigning door-to-door in a county that covers more area than many states.
“My walking team was basically my family, so I can guarantee you my kids weren’t excited about it,” Judge Moody recalls of those hot summer days. “But they did it. Every Saturday morning we’d pick a neighborhood and go door to door, each of us walking down one side of the street. The campaign was good for me in that it got me out of Plant City and around the county to meet a lot of different people that I otherwise would never have had the chance to meet.”
The value of hard work, which he learned from his own parents, is something Judge Moody has tried to pass on to his children, including daughter Ashley (JD 00), and son Jamey (JD 03), both UF Law graduates, and another daughter, Patricia, a medical student. In addition to campaigning for their dad, the children were required to spend three to four hours working in the yard every weekend, weeding flower beds, trimming bushes and mowing the lawn.
“I didn’t like it when I was a child. My dad made me get out there every weekend when my friends were playing football in the side yard,” he recalls. “We had to do our work and finish the work before we could go join in the game. I hated it when I was a kid, but looking back as a lawyer I realized how that stood me in good stead.”