Federico Moreno
Federico Moreno (am holt)

Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King remembers when a young lawyer named K. Michael Moore tried one of his first cases in front of him.

He also recalls when plucky defense attorney Federico Moreno tried a multiple shooting case in his courtroom—at the time one of his biggest cases in Miami.

Now King can take joy in watching as Moore succeeds Moreno as chief judge as his seven-year term comes to a close Monday. Moore becomes the 15th chief judge for the Southern District of Florida.

Moreno oversaw the opening of the Wilkie Ferguson Jr. Federal Courthouse, he wrestled with budget constraints, avoided layoffs and last, but not least, was instrumental in opening the Constitution Cafe, an upscale lunchroom in the new building that puts most courthouse cafeterias to shame.

He also decided to allow lawyers, jurors and reporters to bring cell phones into the federal courthouse. He said he remembers when the courthouse landscaping beds and planters were filled with the phones of jurors, lawyers and court personnel.

Moreno credits his success to Clerk of Court Steve Larimore, whom Moreno hired.

“Someone asks, ‘What’s a chief judge?’ And I said, the chief judge doesn’t make more money, doesn’t boss anybody around. He is like the Queen of England,” Moreno said. “The prime minister is the clerk of court, and my Winston Churchill is Steve Larimore.”

King said Moreno has managed a district with more judges, more staffers and more headaches than he had as chief judge from 1984 to 1991.

“I’ve been here for several chief judges, and in my humble judgment Chief Judge Moreno is the finest, the most outstanding chief judge we’ve ever had,” King said.

He has a similar affinity among lawyers who practice before him.

“Judge Moreno has set the gold standard for being a chief judge,” said criminal defense attorney David O. Markus. “He has made this district the envy of federal courts around the country. We’ve been very lucky to have him as the chief.”

Budget constraints

Moreno made the decision to leave open positions vacant after going through layoffs before taking over as chief judge, which left the district with left to lose in the next budget crunch.

“What we did was plan ahead, recognizing this was going to happen,” he said. “It’s very hard to lay off people, especially if they worked hard and they are good employees. So we survived much better than other districts.”

The Venezuela native almost missed out on the top administrative post. After taking the bench in 1990, President George W. Bush nominated him for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, but then President Bill Clinton was elected and Moreno ended up staying put.

His pedigree is renowned. He is the second consecutive Notre Dame alum to serve as chief judge, following U.S. District Judge William Zloch in Fort Lauderdale, who played quarterback for the Fighting Irish. Moreno famously was portrayed in the movie “Rudy,” a real-life story about an undersized student who overcame obstacles to play football with the help of a tutor.

Moreno was that tutor, but he always has the same complaint about actor Jon Favreau’s portrayal of him: “They made me a nerd.”

Moreno, on his first day as chief judge, signed three administrative orders, one to speed up the process for legal U.S. immigrants to become naturalized U.S. citizenship.

He also tied the closing of the courts during hurricane season to the schools schedule and established a black history month celebration at the courthouse. Moreno established the bench and bar conference where lawyers and judges could meet informally.

“It humanized the court. Judges were able to be with lawyers not just in robs,” Moreno said. “Judges shouldn’t forget how it’s like to be lawyers.”

Moreno also went to bat for former Federal Public Defender Kathleen Williams when she was nominated for district judge and then languished in the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee. Using his chief judge position as a bully pulpit, Moreno wrote to senators to encourage them to dispose of petty politics and approve Williams.

A big concern for Moreno during his tenure has been courthouses. There is a photo of the new the Fort Pierce courthouse, dedicated in 2012, on the wall of his chambers. He also oversaw the big move of nearly all district judges from the C. Clyde Atkins Courthouse to the Ferguson Courthouse across Miami Avenue.

Ferguson Courthouse

Since the opening of the Ferguson courthouse, some lawmakers have said that it was an unnecessary building considering current case loads. Moreno disagrees, saying planning is an absolute necessity and said he regrets not fast-tracking a new courthouse for Fort Lauderdale.

Just last week, there were new problems with sewer pipes at the Fort Lauderdale courthouse and because of space problems Fort Lauderdale cases are often heard in Maimi.

Despite leaving the position of chief judge, Moreno will continue to help shape policy.

The Circuit and District judges of the Eleventh Circuit elected Moreno last month to be the next district judge member of the Judicial Conference of the United States from the 11th Circuit. The body makes policy with regard to the administration of the U.S. courts.

The judges had a nice send off earlier this month for Moreno, surprising him with a get together that included his former law clerks. Moore has decided to stay in his chambers rather than take over Moreno’s office with its glass atrium of an office overlooking the federal court complex.

Professionalism required

Miami attorney Aaron Podhurst, the founder of the firm Podhurst Orseck, said Moreno set the tone for the district by the way he handled his own courtroom. Cases are heard in a timely basis and he demands decorum from attorneys, defendants and parties.

“He is very affable and amiable kind of guy,” Podhurst said. “But I think its very important he requires professional. If you don’t require professionalism, the whole thing breaks down.”

Moreno puts it this way: “Friendly formality is what I like.”

Moore, who has been on the federal bench since 1992, said he is more than ready for the task that awaits him as chief judge.

The former longtime federal prosecutor is the former director of the U.S. Marshal’s Service at the Department of Justice.

He said security is a top priority. Moore wants to make sure that employees and the public, such as jurors, feel they are safe coming to the federal courthouse. In Miami, the federal court complex is often surrounded by the chronically homeless.

“The issues remain the same regardless of who the chief judge is,” Moore said. “We are always interested in making sure vacancies are filled and it looks like we are heading in the direction and I think the judges feel the space issue in Fort Lauderdale is still important.”