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For Tampa’s newest judge, James S. Moody III, law is a family affair

Moody practiced civil litigation in Tampa before his appointment in January to the county bench. He is the son of federal judge James S. Moody Jr., and brother of Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.
James S. Moody III was appointed in January as a Hillsborough County Judge. He is the son of federal judge James S. Moody Jr. and the brother of Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. [Photo courtesy of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court] [Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Court]

TAMPA — From the day that his father swore him in as a member of the Florida Bar, one might have guessed that James S. Moody III would one day take a seat on the judge’s bench. Jurisprudence, after all, runs in his family.

His grandfather, James S. Moody Sr., was a state legislator and later a circuit judge. His father, James S. Moody Jr., is a federal judge in Tampa. His sister, Ashley Moody, was a circuit judge and now serves as Florida’s attorney general. His mother, Carol Moody, is a longtime attorney for Bay Area Legal Services. His younger sister, Patricia, is the non-lawyer in the family. She’s a doctor.

For Moody, a graduate of the University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law, becoming a judge was a long-held goal, but not one he says he always had. In 16 years as an attorney, he worked for two local firms, focusing on personal injury cases, and building a reputation as a respected litigator.

Gov. Ron DeSantis in January appointed James S. Moody III to the Hillsborough County bench.

He was appointed at the same time as Michael Baggé Hernández, a federal prosecutor, who is the son of U.S. District Judge Virginia Covington.

Moody, 42, and his wife, Courtney, have two sons, Duncan, 6, and James S. Moody IV, 8. He recently sat in his new judicial chambers with Times staff writer Dan Sullivan to talk about his family, his career, and his drive to become a jurist. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What’s it like growing up in a family of lawyers?

It’s all I knew, so it wasn’t unusual to me. Looking back, compared to some other households, it may have had some influence on how they handled things around the household, indirectly. I remember in middle school I think I was getting in trouble for something — I don’t remember what — and my dad started telling me what would happen if I did that again, or continued to do that, and he said “I’m not going to continue issuing sanctions here!” ... What parent uses the word sanctions to their kid? I will say this: they never, ever, pressured me or had an expectation on any of us, including Ashley, to go to law school. Ever. They really wanted us to find our own way and do whatever we wanted to pursue.

Was there anything in particular that made you want to go to law school?

There came a point where I realized I enjoyed making persuasive arguments and trying to win people over by being persuasive. ... And I could see myself parlaying that into a career. But you go to law school, and some people realize it’s not for them. ... I knew I was interested enough to at least start down that road and see how I liked it and I did.

Why did you want to be a judge? And did you always want to be a judge?

Not always. I knew I wanted to be an attorney. I knew I wanted to litigate. And as I started getting into litigation, and experiencing it first-hand and observing the role of a judge from this side of it, it was probably about five years in that it started to become intriguing to me. And I started thinking about maybe I’d want to be a judge one day in the future. I never felt any pressure from anybody in my family to do that. But ... I’ve watched my dad sometimes in some of his hearings or his trials — sitting down and listening to Ashley and Dad talk shop, so to speak. Yeah, it became very interesting to me. ... But I wanted to make sure that I had enough experience before I ever attempted to be a judge.

So there was no pressure from the family, but obviously you’ve had three judges before you. Was there a certain point where you definitely want to follow in their footsteps?

My parents certainly they wanted me to do well in school. ... They always wanted me to succeed in that regard, but they never pressured me to go down a certain path or to achieve a certain profession or that I had to reach a certain level or else I failed. They were never like that. They were very good at supporting me in whatever I wanted to do. I would say if there was any pressure, it would be indirect pressure that I put on myself, just having a grandfather, James Sr., and what he had done in his career, and what my dad did in his career, and then Ashley what she’s done in her career. ... Internally, it causes you to want to achieve more. ... I asked my dad one time years ago, I said, ‘would you look unfavorably on me if I can never can achieve the level which you’ve achieved as a federal judge?’ His response was, not at all. There are far more worthy people than he that can never achieve that level and that he absolutely wouldn’t ever look unfavorably (on me) if I didn’t achieve that level. ... So it is in the back of your mind. You always want to please your parents, even as adults. You always want to make them proud of you. ... And to say that I’m not still trying to do that, indirectly, I probably am, to be candid. I wouldn’t be human otherwise.

How many times did you try to do get appointed?

I want to say my name went up to Tallahassee five times and the fifth time was the charm. I applied six or seven, maybe seven. Two times I don’t think I got out of the (Judicial Nominating Commission), and five times I did.

And then you campaigned just the one time in 2018?

Never having run a campaign, you don’t realize how much of your life it will consume. Family, work, and being a dad. I went into it nightly thinking I could do all three well, my home life, work life, campaign life. ... And that’s just not possible. When you get into it, you don’t feel that you’re doing any of the three well, even though you’re spending as much time as you can to do it. So the reality was that I wasn’t able to spend as much time with my children as I thought I was going to during the campaign. And as you know, they’re six and eight, and I knew after that campaign that I wouldn’t run again while they were young. If I had to run again in the future, I would. It was a goal of mine and I wasn’t going to give up on it, but I wasn’t willing to put them through another campaign at that age. They want dad around right now.

What do you think made the difference this time, with getting appointed?

It’s a tough process. If you look at some really good judges, some get appointed with less times up, some take more times. It’s sometimes hard to predict. Sometimes it can just be timing, who’s on your list, how things are going in that regard. ... All I knew to do was to keep pursuing it and do the best I could and be patient with the process. And like I said there are some really good judges I know that took more times to apply than I. ... I thought the world of them as judges. And I knew, goodness, if it took them that long, I can certainly be patient and keep trying and don’t take it personally. ... A lot of good candidates out there, especially in Hillsborough County, are applying each cycle. And I’ve always been happy for the people that end up getting appointed.

So it’s fair to say you’re your own person?

I just try to focus on that as much as I can. I think going forward as a judge, I think it will be nice to have (my family) as a resource. ... I think it’s fair to say I just try to make it on my own steam. ... I don’t want to always just be thought of as ‘Jim Moody’s boy.’ I want to be my own person. But I have to say, there are many things I admire about Ashley and my dad ... if I could be half as good of a judge as those two, then I think I’m in good shape. But I have to go do that on my own.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story gave an incorrect first name of Moody’s wife, Courtney.