New judge hopes to show peers, not age

Ashley Moody, 31, is the baby of the Florida bench, but has a wealth of experience.

Published November 11, 2006

TAMPA - Ashley Brooke Moody has been a Plant City High School cheerleader, Strawberry Festival queen, Blue Key president at the University of Florida, Board of Regents member, accountant, law student, assistant to the American Bar Association president, civil litigator and federal prosecutor.

And now, after a resounding victory Tuesday, she will be a circuit judge in Tampa.

All by age 31.

Her latest accomplishment makes her the youngest judge in Florida and younger than any other member of the Hillsborough bench by almost a decade. Winning 60 percent of the vote, she defied the critics who called her too inexperienced to serve.

But U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. said skepticism inevitably will follow his daughter to the bench.

"She'll have to deal with her age just like she did in her campaign," he said.

Ashley Moody's arsenal contains plenty of tools to help.

First, her impressive lineage. Her father is a federal judge in Tampa; her mother, Carol, is an attorney who provides counsel for poor seniors through Bay Area Legal Services. Her late grandfather, James S. Moody Sr., was a circuit judge and served in the state Legislature. Ashley Moody keeps his gavel in her office.

Said to have a personality that combines her mother's magnetism and her father's introspection, she followed in their footsteps to the University of Florida. She became a "Triple Gator," earning bachelor's, master's and law degrees in Gainesville.

As an intern at Holland & Knight and a law student, she wrote speeches and researched for then-American Bar president Martha Barnett. Barnett, chairwoman of Holland & Knight and a longtime Moody family friend, describes Moody as warm, humble and a quick study.

"I know people say that she was too young to do this job," Barnett said of the judgeship. "But she has had life experiences and professional experiences that have shown me she is qualified to take on the role."

Moody joined Holland & Knight full time after graduation and mostly handled complex commercial litigation. While defending a Guatemalan fisherman on cocaine charges in federal court, she realized she wanted to be on the other side of the aisle.

She got hired by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Jacksonville, where she was assigned to help weed out drug dealers from specific neighborhoods. She quickly built a successful record of indictments, despite being one of the youngest attorneys in the office, her former boss said.

"She moved her cases. I think Ashley just came in and said, 'What is it ya'll want me to do?' " said Brian Kane, chief assistant U.S. attorney in Jacksonville, where Moody worked for almost two years before transferring home to Tampa in December. She continued to work full time throughout the campaign.

Moody, the oldest of four children raised in Plant City, has always shown an inclination toward leadership, equally comfortable as the head of the cheerleading squad or the chief defender for students who violated the honor code. The profile of Moody in the August issue of the Plant City Focus publication included a junior high cheerleading portrait.

Though prim on the campaign trail in conservative suits and her hair pulled tightly back, she twice earned the title of female champion in the annual Holland & Knight chicken wing eating contest. She downed 37 wings one year, and 46 the next in 30 minutes, a feat she attributes more to her competitive streak than a love of meat on a bone.

Moody, who is engaged to a Tampa lawyer, is personally wealthy yet bucked the trend of other judicial candidates who dumped $100,000-plus into their campaign coffers. She contributed $20,000 and raised about $120,600, far more than opponent Gary Dolgin.

When Dolgin dismissed her as a lesser candidate with only the minimum five years of legal experience required to run, Moody responded with polite defensiveness. Her father, whose position prohibited him from assisting his daughter's campaign, said she will continue to have to deal with older attorneys who think they know more than her.

Moody, who like every new judge will be paired with a veteran judicial mentor for her first year in office, gives all the right answers for her combat strategy: "I'll do my homework. I'll research issues. I'll be a prepared and efficient judge."

She knows she will be scrutinized. She is used to it.

"Any time you do something at a nontraditional age, you're going to get skeptics," Moody said over a cafe latte at Moxie's, her favorite downtown eatery. "Instead of assuming that you can handle something, they wait to see if you can handle something.

"I think the best way to quell critics is to perform in an excellent manner, to exceed their expectations."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com