Like most residents and visitors, he enjoys a change of pace when he comes to the Vineyard.
But in nearly every other way, the Hon. Cornelius J. Moriarty 2nd is unlike most residents and visitors. An associate justice of the superior court, Judge Moriarty divides his time between Springfield and the Vineyard, sitting in both superior courts.
And when he is not presiding over a civil and criminal trial here, he might just as easily be found in his garden or at the beach with a saltwater fishing rod in his hand.
“In Springfield, where I sit most of the time, we have quite a criminal caseload . . . I will have probably 10 cases in my docket for that day and we’ll just go right through them,” he said. At one point, that court had 55 pending murder cases.
“This is different,” said Mr. Moriarty, 61, sitting in the judge’s office on the second floor of the Edgartown courthouse, a room so close to the Whaling Church that the hourly church bells seem to shake the walls. “Here, this month, how many cases did we have? Probably only six or seven active criminal cases. For the whole county!” he said.
This week the monthlong spring sitting of Dukes County superior court came to a close. And beyond the personal time that the judge, who lives in South Hadley and Edgartown, spends on the Island, he’ll be back at the courthouse in October for another court session.
State budget cuts brought Mr. Moriarty to the Island as a regular sitting judge in the superior court. With the court budget reduced by 15 per cent, he said, the expense of housing a visiting judge was too great. So Mr. Moriarty, who has a home in Katama, was moved from his normal court posts in Springfield and Worcester to preside over the Dukes County superior sessions.
The judge’s ties to the Island go back to 1986, he said, when he first bought a home here. His four sons attended Vineyard schools, and his wife, Geraldine, served as principal of the Oak Bluffs and Chilmark schools at different times.
While all courts are different in their own ways, Judge Moriarty said, the Vineyard offers an entirely different judicial pace — especially when contrasted with Springfield, where eight superior court judges sit every day, six devoted to criminal cases.
“I can’t say that [the crime is] more serious, because all crimes are serious,” he said. “It’s just the volume of them.”
The types of court cases are different, too, he said, with land use cases more common on the Cape and the Vineyard, where land is valuable and land regulations abundant.
“A lot of times you have people who have the financial wherewithal to fight about it, and so they do. So you have a lot of land use regulation you don’t find anywhere else,” he said.
The small size of the Island also brings any high-profile cases even more into the spotlight, he said, sometimes making it hard to empanel a jury.
“Because the Island’s so small and everybody knows everybody,” he said. “So cases here tend to get a little more notoriety just simply because of the small size of the Island and the fact that it’s pretty well covered [by the newspapers].”
A case in point was in March of this year, when Mr. Moriarty presided over a four-week civil trial between Cessna Aircraft and the pilot and passengers of a plane that crashed in Katama in 2005. More than 200 potential jurors were called for a trial that was expected to last three weeks. And while that might sound like a large jury pool, Judge Moriarty said it was still hard to find jurors with no connection to the witnesses.
“Everybody knew somebody,” he said.
He said his own role includes making sure participants have a fair trial. At the end of every day of a trial, he reminds the jury not to discuss the case with anyone or read any media coverage. All it takes is someone posting their juror status on Facebook, and a seemingly innocent comment about the trial could compromise the juror.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a case where somebody intentionally did anything, but it does happen. We try to make sure it doesn’t,” he said. “Reminders never hurt.”
He acknowledges the sacrifice made by jurors, and makes it a point to speak to them after the trial, not about the deliberations but to invite constructive criticism and hear their thoughts about the process.
“I have to say, 99 per cent of the time, people say, ‘This was a really rewarding experience.’ People look forward to being on jury duty like they look forward to having a root canal. It has this bad reputation, and I don’t know how it got it, but it did,” he said.
But often after a few days, he finds jurors become invested in the case. “I firmly believe the juries want to do the right thing and so they work hard. I like to get their feedback,” he said.
Mr. Moriarty grew up in Holyoke, where he practiced law for 30 years after graduating from Boston College and Suffolk University School of Law. In 2006, then-Gov. Mitt Romney appointed him to the superior court.
The law is a four-generation business for the Moriartys.
“I come from a family of lawyers,” the judge said. His grandfather was a lawyer, and his father was a lawyer and a Massachusetts superior court judge for 25 years.
He is the oldest of 11 children, and five of his brothers are lawyers, as are two of his four sons and one of his daughters in law.
“So, yeah. We really can’t work with our hands,” he said, laughing.
His oldest son, Robert, practices law on the Vineyard, and another son Tim, also a lawyer, is moving to the Vineyard next month. Son Braden is a radio producer living outside of Boston, and son Sean just graduated from the UCLA screenwriting program and has moved back to the Vineyard as well.
Mr. Moriarty said he had no difficulty making the shift from trial attorney to the bench. “I spent all of my time in the courtroom . . . I did a lot of criminal defense work and I did a lot of civil work as well, so it wasn’t a hard transition,” he said, although he recalled the time in his second trial as a judge “ . . . when a lawyer asked a question, and from the bench I said, ‘Objection.’ ”
He continued: “[As a judge] you’re not an advocate anymore. You’re trying to call it right down the middle. So that’s a little different.
“The hardest part is, we’re required to make snap decisions . . . But I think that’s the challenge, trying to be right and trying to do everything right off the cuff, that I think is the hardest part and the biggest challenge. Nobody’s going to give you a perfect trial, but you’re only entitled to fair one.”
He had warm words of praise for the Vineyard legal community. “I enjoy the lawyers here. It’s got an old-time feel to it,” he said. “In the legal profession, people constantly bemoan the lack of civility among lawyers, whereas in the smaller community you don’t get as much of that. And that’s true here. You have lawyers who are civil to one another, they cooperate with one another. They make being a judge pretty easy.”
Off the bench, Mr. Moriarty said he spends most weekends at his house in Katama, his legal residence. “I like to go fishing, I like to garden and I like to go to the beach,” he said.
Best of both worlds?
“I tell you what, it’s a wonderful opportunity to be here,” the judge said. “It’s a pleasure to be here.”