Judge Donald Molloy
Strict judge capable of creative sentencing
By NATE HEGYI
In 2006, Molloy added a public shaming component to the house arrest and probation sentence of a man who lied in his presentencing report. The man said he was a Marine and fought in Panama. When that proved untrue, Molloy ordered him to spend 50 hours in public wearing a sign that said, “I am a liar. I am not a Marine.”
That part of the sentence was ultimately overturned on appeal, but attorneys who try cases before the judge say they respect the way Molloy works.
“Molloy runs a courtroom well or better than any judge I’ve been in front of,” said Don Wilson, whose client prompted Molloy’s shaming order. “He finds the balance between what the law says and what he truly believes to be right.”
Molloy is preparing to preside over what some call the largest environmental criminal trial in the history of the United States. The case, U.S. v. W.R. Grace, focuses on Libby, Mont., and whether the giant chemical company and five of its former executives conspired to hide lethal workplace risks from workers and community members.
The trial is expected to begin with jury selection on Feb. 19 and last six weeks or longer. The trial may well put the judge in a national spotlight.
Molloy was born in Butte in 1946 and grew up in Malta. He played Griz football and graduated from the University of Montana in 1968 with a degree in political science. After a five-year stint in the Navy as a flight officer, he returned and earned a law degree from UM in 1976.
While in the service, he married Judy Straus from Polson. They have five children and a family fondness for Flathead Lake.
After serving two years as a law clerk under District Court Judge James Battin in Billings, Molloy went into private practice, specializing in tort law and products liability. In 1995, Sen. Max Baucus nominated him to serve as a judge for life in the U.S. District Court.
Molloy has attracted national attention before. Last summer he blocked the delisting of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act. The decision infuriated many ranchers and thrilled many environmentalists, who consider Molloy one of the “greenest” judges in the West, according to High Country News.
Molloy, in an audio interview with Bill Schwanke of the Missoulian newspaper, said regardless of the attention a trial attracts, he runs his courtroom by the book.
“I stick to the game plan. I try and do what’s right under the law,” Molloy said. “I’d say 50 percent of the people dislike what I do. Every case has two sides and somebody’s always unhappy with what I do. Everything I do I have to do it in public and explain why I’m doing it.”
Molloy emphasizes decorum and has little sympathy for attorneys who appear unready before him.
Missoula attorney Morgan Modine said the judge “can be very intimidating to a new lawyer and forces you to be prepared.” Molloy’s work ethic and commitment to the judicial process have earned him the respect of many attorneys who find themselves before him.
“Molloy could have made millions as a trial lawyer, but he stepped aside to become a public servant,” Modine said. “He brought with him a compassion for the little guy.”
That doesn’t mean Molloy lets his emotions override his judgment in the courtroom.
“He holds himself to the law. I’ve seen him struggle with what he understands the law to be and his personal feelings, and he always comes down on the side of the law,” Wilson said. “That’s why I respect him, because win or lose you get a fair hearing in front of Judge Molloy in every issue.”