The Honorable John F. Moulds III

Retired U.S. Magistrate Judge John F. Moulds III, who served the Eastern District of California with great distinction for thirty years and is remembered as the Dean of the Magistrate Judge bench, nationally and locally, died peacefully Friday morning, May 29, 2020. He had just recently turned 82 years old.


Early Life

John Moulds was born in Kansas City, Missouri, one of three sons of John F. Moulds, Jr. and Virginia Bennett Moulds, an interior designer and English professor, respectively. After brief stints in Chicago, then San Francisco, John’s family settled in Sacramento when he was 4 years old. He attended Arden Elementary and graduated from El Camino High School before attending Stanford University. While he had to return to Sacramento before finishing Stanford, due to a family emergency, the change in plans had more than one silver lining: he obtained his B.A. with honors from California State University, Sacramento in 1960, and while a student there he met the incomparable Elizabeth (Betty) Fry, who became his wife several years later.


First Jobs and Law School

Following college graduation, after a stint in the California National Guard from which he received an honorable discharge following an injury, John went to work for the California Legislature, first as a Research Analyst for the California State Senate’s Fact-Finding Committee on Education from 1960 to 1961, and then Administrative Assistant to State Senator Albert S. Rodda from 1961 to 1963. His work in the legislature on education and water issues whetted an appetite for public policy and the law, so when Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley accepted John he enrolled. Five years after they met, he and Betty married following John’s 1L year, in August 1964. During law school John served as Legal Editor for the California Continuing Education of the Bar, and a member of the Law Students’ Civil Rights Research Council. He also clerked for attorneys representing protestors arrested during the 1964 San Francisco Auto Row sit-ins protesting racial discrimination in hiring practices, laying the groundwork for his own later work as a civil rights attorney.


Family and Law Practice

Following law school, John and Betty returned to Sacramento, first living in Curtis Park, then in the Sierra Oaks neighborhood where they raised two sons, Donald and Gerald. As they each pursued their own careers, John’s in the law and Betty’s in higher education, they forged a joint life rich in culture and politics, good food and great friends. John’s first job as a lawyer was as a Staff Attorney and then Directing Attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) in its Marysville office, before starting CRLA’s legislative advocacy office in Sacramento. For a brief interlude, he worked for Sacramento Legal Aid.

From 1969 to 1985, he was one of the founders of Blackmon, Isenberg & Moulds, and stayed through various iterations for seventeen years, concluding his time in private practice as a partner in Isenberg, Moulds & Hemmer. John’s practice was general, with cases in administrative and election law, criminal defense, personal injury and civil rights. His partner the Honorable Phil Isenberg, later elected Sacramento’s Mayor and Member of the Assembly, had been friends since Boy Scouts -- but it was John who had all the merit badges, which irked Isenberg to say the least. On a more sanguine note, says Isenberg, “John is my best friend, longest standing friend and one of the smartest people I have ever met.” Smarts aside, Isenberg recalls, he and his partners became accustomed to finding John’s unpaid parking tickets used as bookmarks in their law library! Most importantly, “the consistent thread” through John’s law practice “was John’s empathy and his ability to listen. Clients would meet with John and, almost without fail, come away feeling better, not just about their cases, but about themselves personally. John was a truly gifted counselor at law.”

John Moulds the lawyer unquestionably did not shrink from difficult cases, as William B. Shubb remembers. Shubb, now a Senior U.S. District Judge in the Eastern District of California, first became acquainted with Moulds during an extended case in 1972, in which members of the Pit River Indian tribe were charged with assaulting federal officers during a melee that ensued when U.S. Marshals attempted to remove an encampment from land in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Shubb was the prosecutor, and Moulds one of seven attorneys appointed by U.S. District Judge Philip C. Wilkins to represent the defendants in the case. Shubb recalls the trial, lasting over several weeks, frequently became quite contentious, but “it was Moulds, sitting at the very end of the long table of defense attorneys, who would often rise quietly at the end of a heated argument by the others to bring the breath of reason to the discussion.” As importantly, “he represented his client well, ultimately gaining an acquittal.”

Four years later, Shubb and Moulds found themselves on the same side in another notable trial. Shubb was in private practice by that time, and Judge Thomas MacBride appointed the two to represent Sandra Good and Susan Murphy, followers of Charles Manson, in connection with charges of mailing threatening communications. “It was a frustrating task,” Shubb notes, “because both clients wanted to be convicted and insisted upon representing themselves.” Shubb remembers Moulds sitting patiently with his client throughout the trial, giving her legal advice she hardly ever followed. This time, Moulds’ client was convicted. Through these two trials, Shubb developed an impression of John Moulds as “a selfless advocate who had the unique ability to effectively serve the best interests of his clients while at the same time serving as a respected officer of the court.”

On the civil side of the docket, John worked on two cases in which his clients prevailed before the California Supreme Court. In one, Zeilenga v. Nelson, 4 Cal. 3d 716 (1971), the Court struck down a Butte County Charter provision that required five years of residency for candidates for County Supervisor. The unanimous decision written by Justice Peters made clear the right to run for office is as fundamental as the right to vote. In another decision ultimately vacated by the U.S Supreme Court, the state Supreme Court invalidated a state law requiring a 2/3 majority for approval of school and special district bond measures.

Dale A. Drozd, now a U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of California, was beginning his own law practice during the time John Moulds was making his mark as a seasoned lawyer. Judge Drozd remembers Moulds making a strong impression as “a well-known and highly respected lawyer from his days at CRLA through his years in private practice in Sacramento.”

After hours, Moulds had time for community work as well, staying active in Democratic Party politics and from 1974 to 1975, serving as an appointed Member of the Sacramento City and County Human Relations Commission, and as that Commission’s Chair in 1974.


Part-Time Magistrate to Chief Magistrate Judge

In 1983, recognizing his stature as an attorney, the District Judges of the Eastern District of California selected Moulds to fill a new part-time position as a Magistrate, as the job was then known. In this role, Judge Moulds assisted with the court’s criminal duty calendars, visiting satellite locations at Travis and Beale Air Force Bases, as well as Mare Island, and sharing duties with full-time Magistrate Esther Mix. Quickly proving his mettle, Judge Moulds earned a full-time appointment in January 1986. Embracing his new duties, Moulds developed a blueprint for the fair and efficient handling of prisoner civil rights and habeas cases that became a national model and still guides many Magistrate Judges across the country to this day. He hired a cadre of smart and capable staff attorneys and assistants, many of whom stayed for the length of their professional careers, and several of whom continue to serve the court. As one of those staff attorneys said, at the time John took recall status, “Anyone who has worked for John would say he’s the easiest, most wonderful person to work for, and we feel lucky to have had that experience.” Carla Wright, who worked for John for just over thirty years – first as a paralegal, then judicial assistant, then staff attorney after earning her law degree with his support -- puts it this way: “John Moulds changed my life in profound ways. He was a great mentor -- generous, caring, and cerebral, often light years ahead of us in his thinking. Yet he was not egotistical or micromanaging, making it a joy to work with him. Except that he was always late, which was no fun in his private practice, but became less of an issue once he became the judge.”

Judge Moulds also accepted assignment to Circuit committees. From 1987 to 1991 he was a member of the Ninth Circuit’s Death Penalty Task Force and helped coordinate publication of the Circuit’s first Capital Punishment Handbook. From 1992 to 1995, having developed significant expertise in capital habeas, he continued to serve the Circuit on the Ninth Circuit’s Capital Case Committee.

And Judge Moulds’ interest in culture and the arts found an outlet after former Chief Judge Robert E. Coyle secured federal funding for a new Eastern District of California courthouse in Sacramento. Judge Moulds was exactly the right person to represent the court on the committee tasked with selecting the public art to grace the new highrise. The combination of nationally and internationally known artists featured on the courthouse plaza and in its rotunda today, with local artists represented on each floor, bears Judge Moulds’ deft fingerprints. The judges in Sacramento are deservedly proud in thinking the courthouse, now named for former Congressman Robert T. Matsui, is among the best examples of public art in the City.


Leader in Development of the MJ System

Judge Moulds was Chief Magistrate and then Chief Magistrate Judge of the Eastern District for a remarkable run from 1987 to 1997, during which time he played an active leadership role in the National Council of U.S. Magistrates, as it was then known. He was the group’s President from 1992 to 1993, heading up that organization’s first national conference in 1993. In this role, he was tireless in working with other Magistrate Judges throughout the country to improve their lot.

Senior U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon of the Eastern District of New York, formerly a Magistrate Judge, remembers that Judge Moulds “had a deep belief in the moral value of being a judge and of doing justice to all.” She also observes, “He had a deep commitment to the merit selection of magistrate judges, and he devoted himself not only to his own work but to the broader issues facing the judicial system.” Recalled Magistrate Judge John Weinberg of the Western District of Washington, who first recruited Judge Moulds to join the national group, explains: “John and I with him have always been very much interested and dedicated to developing the magistrate judges’ system, to make a major contribution to the federal judiciary.” As Judge Weinberg emphasizes, “It’s always been a passion of his and mine to develop. Together we worked to expand our jurisdiction so we were doing more interesting work.” With their colleagues on the national board, Judges Moulds and Weinberg worked strategically “to foster the attractiveness of the job,” focusing on what might seem “mundane things like salary, and the dignity of the officers in that job.” They argued successfully, with their colleagues, for a change in the statutory title to “Magistrate Judge,” so that those officers would be “called judge, with decent courtroom and chambers and robes – and treated like real judges.”

Judge Gershon sums up Judge Moulds’ contribution this way: “He was a major figure in the maturation of the MJ system. As a very energetic and forward looking president of the [Federal Magistrate Judge’s Association or] FMJA,” as the National Council of Magistrates came to be known, “he knew where the system should go before many of us really caught on exactly what the MJs could accomplish, to assist District Judges who were so busy.”

Judge Moulds’ former Eastern District colleague, retired Magistrate Judge Dennis L. Beck confirms, “John was really active in hitting Capitol Hill for several years in a row. And his efforts paid off.” Judge Drozd, who served as Eastern District of California Chief Magistrate Judge before his appointment as a District Judge, echoes this observation: “John Moulds was one of the key national players in the expansion and development of the magistrate judge system we have today – a system critical to the functioning of our federal courts.”

John served the causes of Magistrate Judges in other ways as well: as a member of the U.S. Judicial Conference Committee on the Administration of the Magistrate Judges System, the Advisory Committee to the Magistrate Judges’ Division of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and the Federal Judicial Center’s Education Committee. In all of these roles, says Dennis Beck, “John was just instrumental in getting other MJs --particularly judges in the Eastern District of California involved” at all levels of the judiciary. “He was a great talent spotter, and a great boon to MJs in that way.” It’s no coincidence that retired Magistrate Judge Sandra M. Snyder, a colleague of John’s from the court’s Fresno Division, was perfectly in line to serve as the first Magistrate Judge to Chair the Ninth Circuit Conference held in Huntington Beach in 2006. In fact, Judge Snyder was the first Magistrate Judge in all the federal circuits to serve as a circuit conference chair!

Judge Drozd also benefited from Judge Moulds’ mentoring and strategic thinking. “He had a significant impact on my career. John was one of those who encouraged me to apply for a new magistrate judge position that had been created in Sacramento in 1997. When I was appointed, he looked out for me by guiding some of his highly regarded and well-trained staff onto my staff, easing my transition onto the bench. Finally, as I approached the point where I would become the Chief Magistrate Judge of the district, John (along with Dennis Beck) made sure I was trained and ready to begin playing chess instead of checkers in making sure our court maximized, to the fullest extent possible, the positions we were allocated by the Administrative Offices of the U.S. Courts.” Judge Drozd marvels at Moulds’ skill, which could catch the unsuspecting off guard given the man’s understated manner. “Believe me, John was truly a master at that game and enjoyed playing it!“

When she succeeded Judge Moulds as a Magistrate Judge in 2003, the Eastern District’s current Chief Judge Kim Mueller experienced his guidance as well: “He instilled in all of us a deep sense of pride in being Magistrate Judges – with an emphasis on the ‘Judge.’ And it soon became clear what a debt my colleagues and I owed to John, given the careful attention he had given to defining the roles and responsibilities of Magistrate Judges, nationally and in our court’s local rules.” At the same time, “despite his stature, John’s unassuming nature and understated dry humor helped put me at ease from the beginning,” Judge Mueller says. “I still treasure the JFK dollar he passed on to me following my MJ investiture: ‘sustained’ engraved on one side, ‘overruled’ on the other!”

Fittingly, in the year 2000, for his energetic leadership and his foresight, the FMJA honored John with its prestigious “Founders Award.”


Fellow Judges, Fellow Travelers, and Best of Friends

As Judge Weinberg looks back now, he “is very pleased with the results” he and Judge Moulds and their colleagues achieved. More importantly, he says, “I don’t have any closer friend than John Moulds,” a friendship forged through working side by side to promote a shared cause – “a movement, not a political movement so much but a movement of professionals trying to make a significant contribution to the national system.” The Weinberg-Moulds friendship extended to their wives Betty and Cherie as well. John and Betty were what Judge Weinberg’s grandfather called “feinschmeckers,” gourmet cooks and restaurant aficionados. “They were such fun to be with” and “we hooked on to them as cabooses.” Once the four were on a river boat cruise in France, with a stop in Lyon. The Moulds made a lunch reservation at the restaurant of the “best chef in world, Paul Bocuse,” recalls Weinberg. “We took a cab from the boat for lunch; we never had a meal like that. And the great man himself came out of kitchen and greeted us, between the fifth and sixth or the seventh and eighth course, I don’t recall. He was very famous, world renowned,” and thanks to the Moulds the Weinbergs had an experience of a lifetime, one of many over the years.

The Weinbergs are among the many good friends John and Betty made as John worked with his colleagues throughout the country to strengthen the magistrate judge bench. When meeting the Moulds at a Magistrate Judges meeting in New Orleans in the early 90s, Judge Gershon recalls they were the “most sophisticated and high spirited couple I’d ever met. . .so cool, you know!” After that, “across the miles, we became good friends,” with Judge Gershon and her husband visiting the Moulds in California and the Moulds trekking to the Gershons’ remote Adirondack cabin for a rustic adventure.

Even recent additions to the Magistrate Judge bench have stories to tell of the Moulds’ love of travel. Eastern District Magistrate Judge Kendall J. Newman and his wife Patti were visiting Prague in 2014. Walking down one of the city streets one day, who did they bump into? John and Betty Moulds!


Recall Status

After assuming recall status in March 2003, Judge Moulds continued to preside over cases until his full retirement in November 2013. During this same time, in recognition of the deep knowledge he acquired of capital habeas cases, he was appointed by the California State Senate as a Member of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, serving on that body from 2005 to 2008. In its Final Report issued in June 2008, the Commission found California’s system of capital punishment was costly and “dysfunctional” and recommended either scrapping the system or undertaking significant reforms. While the Commission’s core recommendations were unanimous, members split over the tone of the final report. Seven members of the Commission, including Judge Moulds, co-signed a Supplemental Statement on Repealing the Death Penalty, writing separately to say the report did not go far enough in calling for repeal, providing their reasons and concluding the “process and administration are inherently flawed. Its costs are too high.”


Renaissance Man, Lifetime Friend

Judge Moulds was a full participant in all aspects of court life and life generally, as just a few more stories illustrate.

After one annual Magistrate Judges’ holiday potluck and gift exchange, during which he made a play to go home with the excellent bottle of Hendricks gin he contributed to the gift pile, a new “Moulds rule” was adopted to block similar sleights of hand in future years.

On the home front, as they raised their sons, John and Betty meticulously remodeled their stylish Sierra Oaks home to reflect Japanese elements and feature their impressive collection of contemporary art. At the home’s center was a large, open kitchen where John presided when off the bench, wielding his formidable culinary skills. Many a friend and colleague, from the Eastern District and from around the country, were treated to John and Betty’s welcoming hospitality, impeccable taste and delicious and adventurous menus.

John also was an accomplished fly-fisherman, bridge champion and poker player, not to mention tennis player, once playing doubles with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He loved golden retrievers, gardening and fine wine. John was a gifted photographer, an avocation he and Betty shared after her retirement. For a number of years, the cover of the Eastern District of California’s Annual Report bore John’s stunning photographs of the district’s natural wonders, including Half Dome in Yosemite (2002), Badwater in Death Valley National Park (2003), Mount Shasta (2004), and Aspens on the Eastern Slopes of the Sierra near Yosemite National Park (2005). Judge Drozd could not be more right in saying, “John Moulds was a renaissance man . . . a lover of fine things, a true friend, a great father and wonderful husband to Betty.”

During his retirement, many of those whose lives John touched went out of their way to return the dedication and lasting affection they had experienced in his orbit. Several devoted court staff continued to visit Judge Moulds, going to lunches, taking him gourmet repasts and spending quality time with him. These lifelong friends included Carla Wright, quoted above; staff attorney Haven Gracey, who shared his love of gourmet cooking and worked for him until he left the bench; and former elbow law clerk Joanne Merry who shared his quick wit and love and mastery of bridge. Staff attorneys Vicki Wooster and Diane Uebel, along with former relief judicial assistant Patti Andrews and former courtroom deputy Connie Farnsworth, also were dedicated visitors and had hoped to celebrate Judge Moulds’ most recent birthday with him. Their hearts broke when the coronavirus pandemic required instead sheltering in place. Prior to the pandemic, his very first elbow law clerk, Helena Whalen-Bridge, was able to visit John during a trip back from Singapore, where she now works as a law professor.


Family the Most Important Legacy

Betty survives John, as does his son Don, Chief Health Director of CalPERS, and his spouse Kate, with twin daughters Hannah and Mia, and son Gerald, Computer Science and Engineering Lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, and his spouse Julianne.

Granddaughters Hannah and Mia, now age eight, have special mementos to remind them of grandpa John: During one visit to Washington, D.C. before he retired, John had an opportunity to visit Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy at the Court. The two went back: the Justice had been one of the older, more intimidating boys in the Land Park neighborhood where John also grew up, which made granting a favor an easy call: The Justice signed two blue leather-bound pocket constitutions, which Judge Moulds proudly delivered when the girls were still newborns, trusting they would find the wisdom in those founding words when the time came.


Information on a memorial will be provided once John’s family and friends can gather together. In the meantime, cards may be sent c/o Greg Santee, Human Resources Manager, Eastern District of California, U.S. District Court, Robert T. Matsui U.S. Courthouse, 501 I Street, Sacramento, California 95814; Mr. Santee will arrange to deliver them to Betty and her sons.