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Last June, as U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno sat in his Miami courtroom, presiding over a massive class action lawsuit filed against the nation’s largest health insurance plans, he sparred repeatedly with some of the most talented and famous plaintiff lawyers in the country, including David Boies and Dickie Scruggs. He clearly was reveling in it. “And why should I rule in your favor?” he challenged each lawyer in a friendly voice, injecting levity into an otherwise tedious day-long discussion of HMO capitation and other provider contracts. While Moreno keeps the tone light, the stakes are huge. If HMO subscribers and providers, who are the plaintiffs in the two tracks of the suit, succeed in holding the health plans liable, it could have a dramatic effect on how health plans nationally pay their doctors and other providers and how they describe their plans to patients. The litigation, filed by many of the same ace lawyers who cut the big tobacco companies down to size several years ago, alleges that eight major managed care insurers — including Aetna and Humana — systematically delayed payments, down-coded fees and engaged in civil conspiracy and violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. It could affect as many as 80 million subscribers and 600,000 doctors. But right now, the plaintiffs are fighting to keep the case alive. Two weeks ago Moreno dismissed all the claims alleging a RICO violation in the members’ suits against all the defendants except Humana; he gave the plaintiffs until Friday to file corrected complaints. Each side continues to express confidence that it will prevail. It was a sign of his judicial colleagues’ respect for him when Moreno, 49, was selected last November by the Panel for Multi-District Litigation in Washington, to handle the HMO class action case. “This is a high compliment to our court that Judge Moreno was chosen,” Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King said at the time. “The panel only chooses judges who can handle such a complex case and can keep a case moving along.” Moreno’s task is enormous: to manage a case that involves 40 law firms, hundreds of lawyers, and rooms full of documents; rule on scores of motions; and keep the matter moving as fast as possible. More than 1,292 pleadings or motions have been made in the case since last year. At the same time, Moreno is handling the same load of cases as other judges in the district. Lawyers on both sides of the HMO case give Moreno high marks for his handling of the case. “He’s what a federal judge should be,” says Aaron Podhurst, one of the lead plaintiffs’ attorneys in the HMO case and a partner at Podhurst Orseck Josefsberg in Miami. “He demonstrates total preparation, total consideration, and is kind to all litigants, as well as witnesses and jurors.” While some judges preside with a heavy hand, yelling at unprepared lawyers and cutting them off in midsentence, Moreno is known for his informal manner, quick wit and courtesy. When his courtroom is standing room only, he is quick to inform the lawyers they may bring in chairs from outside. David O. Markus, a federal public defender, says he recently defended a man charged with firearms possession before Moreno. “He knew every issue, and he’s as fair as they come.” FATHER-IN-LAW’S ORDER Moreno’s colleagues and former law partners are not surprised at his success in the courtroom. They say he’s always had the temperament of a judge, even when he was a young criminal defense attorney at Thornton Rothman & Moreno in Miami. “You just have a gut instinct about who will become a judge, and he was one,” says John Thornton, Moreno’s former partner. “He would always look at things from the court’s perspective in determining whether to make an argument.” Thornton says that when clients would raise marginal issues, he’d tell them, “It doesn’t matter to the judge.” But Moreno says becoming a lawyer or judge wasn’t in his original game plan. Born in Venezuela, he came to the United States at the age of 12, settling in South Bend, Ind., where his father was a professor of modern languages at Notre Dame University. He went on to attend Notre Dame and continues to be a dedicated Domer, with a Fighting Irish bumper sticker on his car. He makes a pilgrimage to South Bend once a year to attend a football game. After college, Moreno worked as a substitute teacher and teaching assistant in New Jersey, helping Puerto Rican teenagers get their GEDs. But he says he eventually decided that being a lawyer “is what you did if you wanted to affect people’s lives.” So, in 1975, he enrolled at the University of Miami law school. “Being Hispanic, I figured it would be a great place to practice law and meet people,” he says. In fact, law school is where he met his wife-to-be, Cristina. She was the better student, finishing No. 2 in her class. Moreno has been a Miamian ever since. “My father-in-law was a traditional Cuban and he said, ‘If you marry my daughter, you have to live in Miami,’ ” he says. After law school, both Moreno and his wife went into private practice, separately, as criminal defense attorneys. He started at the Miami firm Rollins Peeples & Meadows, where former U.S. Attorney William Meadows became his mentor. He represented everyone from accused murderers to alleged white-collar offenders. He later became an assistant federal public defender, then a partner at Thornton Rothman & Moreno. He joined that firm in part because Thornton was a fellow Domer. LOSING SLEEP OVER DECISIONS But, he says, he gradually felt the pull of the bench. He applied for an open Dade County Court judgeship, and, at 34, was appointed by then-Gov. Bob Graham in 1986. Even racing through 400 traffic cases a day, he enjoyed it, though he’d come home drained. Moreno says serving as a county judge was a valuable experience. “A lot of cases are not important to society,” he explains, “but they are important to the individuals involved.” When a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judgeship became vacant, Moreno applied and was appointed by then-Gov. Bob Martinez in 1987. As a circuit judge, Moreno twice imposed the death penalty. He says handing down the ultimate punishment is “a very, very hard thing to do. Even sending someone to jail for a few days is hard.” But, he says, his hardest decision arose when a mother who had changed her mind about putting her child up for adoption asked him to vacate his adoption order. He refuses to say how he ruled in that case, insisting that he never discusses his decisions. “I followed the letter of the law” is all he says. When a spot on the federal bench opened up in 1990, he applied and was appointed by President George H.W. Bush. In recent years, Republicans haven’t often appointed former criminal defense attorneys to the bench. But Moreno was a card-carrying Republican with strong backing from Cuban-American leaders in Miami. He became one of the first Hispanics appointed to the federal bench in South Florida. GORILLAS TO PONZI SCHEMES He says he particularly enjoys serving as a federal judge because it allows him to be a generalist. One day, he is deciding whether HMOs are behaving illegally, the next day he’s hearing a case against five men charged with smuggling gorillas out of the U.S. They were caught in a sting by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent dressed up as a gorilla. The five were convicted. Some of his rulings have had wide-reaching impact. In 1999, he expanded a lawsuit brought on behalf of eight children against the state foster care system to a class comprising all 1,100 children in the foster care system in Broward County. Also in 1999, he approved a landmark settlement between the city of Miami and lawyers representing homeless people who alleged that they were “maliciously arrested” by police in the 1980s. The deal, which resolved a class action suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, called for the city to pay $1,500 to any homeless person who could prove that he or she was arrested improperly. The HMO case is not Moreno’s first big class action case. In 1995, after three years of proceedings, he approved a $160 million settlement for investors in a Ponzi scheme case brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission case against Premium Sales Corp. About 1,400 investors had lost money when the North Dade grocery diverting company went out of business. Moreno admits that he often can’t sleep when he’s in the middle of trying to reach a decision in a big case. But he says he never consults others for advice. “He’s very decisive,” says his wife. JUDICIAL DRAWBACKS Still, there are times when he yearns to throw off the black robes and argue cases again, particularly when he’s listening to a lawyer making an exceptionally persuasive argument in his courtroom. “Sometimes I miss the advocacy,” he says. “All of us miss the battle.” He misses the big bucks, too. While Moreno loves his job, he says he wishes it paid more than $141,000. That’s far less than many of the attorneys who argue cases before him. The only reason he can serve as a judge and still afford to send his three children to private school, he says, is that his wife is a successful attorney. Another drawback to his job is the isolation. While Moreno is one of the few federal judges who regularly attends bar social events, most of his days are spent in a courtroom or in his chambers, studying pleadings and law books. To avoid any appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest, he has gradually narrowed his legal-social circle to fellow judges. Still, Moreno says, there’s no other job he would want. “He has greater job satisfaction than anyone I know,” says his wife. “He takes it very seriously, and brings work home.” “This is a better job than being president,” Moreno gushes. “You’re appointed for life. We don’t have to respond to reporters. We can simply do what’s right.”

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