From Harper Lee’s Book to Idaho’s Highest Court, A BYU Law Alum’s Ascent
By Ezra Vaoifi
For most people, 10th grade is anything but life-changing. But for a young Gregory Moeller, this is where it all began. His unique journey to becoming the 58th Idaho Supreme Court Justice commenced with Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.
“When I was in 10th grade, I saw the movie and read the book,” Justice Moeller said. “There is a scene right after the trial is over when Tom Robinson was wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. The courtroom had cleared except for the black folks who were still sitting up in the balcony, which was unfortunately the segregated part of the courtroom. Atticus’ children were sitting up there with them, and as Atticus was putting his briefcase away and getting ready to leave the courtroom, all the people began to stand.”
“His young daughter was wondering what was going on, likely because she knew that in court, the only time people stand is when the judge or jury enters or leaves the courtroom. So, she asks the minister standing next to her, ‘Why are they standing?’ and the minister told her, ‘Because your father is passing.’
“When I experienced that as a 10th grader, I felt a chill go up my spine, and the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and I knew at that moment that someday I was going to be an attorney. I also somehow knew at that moment that someday I would be called upon to represent an innocent person in a big case, just as Atticus Finch had in the book.”
This was just the start of his life in the law.
After graduating from South Fremont High School in 1981, Moeller spent two years on a mission in Nagoya, Japan. He later graduated magna cum laude from BYU, with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He then attended the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU, where he received his juris doctorate in 1990.
After law school, Moeller worked for the Rexburg law firm of Rigby, Andrus & Moeller, where he became a partner in 1994. During his time as an attorney, Moeller tried cases across Idaho. However, one of his most notable cases included working for sixteen years (pro bono for five of those years) to free a man who had been wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder. A case incredibly similar to the one that had inspired him to become an attorney over a decade prior.
Justice Moeller is married to Kathy Keck of Ashton, Idaho, and they are the parents of five children and seven grandchildren. He enjoys running, gardening, making family videos, cooking, and eating. He has coached many youth sports teams and has been a member of the BYU Cougar Club since 1990. He is rumored to have the largest hot sauce collection in Idaho (over 135 bottles and counting).
The following is a Q&A where Justice Moeller elaborates on the impact of To Kill a Mockingbird in his life and offers personal advice to teachers, attorneys, judges, and Americans everywhere.
1) Q. What were you doing when you were first notified of your appointment to the Idaho Supreme Court? What was your initial reaction?
A. Frankly, my initial reaction was relief. It was such a long process—it lasted for almost 18 months. I was actually a candidate for the Supreme Court three times because there were an unprecedented three vacancies in the Idaho Supreme Court in a year and a half. I don’t think that had ever happened since statehood. While it’s an unfortunate reality of life that you become accustomed to dealing with a lot of uncertainty about your future when you’re in your 20s, it’s a little more difficult to cope with it in your 50s. It was a relief to have it over with.
I came close the first two times I applied—I was nominated as one of four finalists for the first two positions—yet, when the third position came up, I had serious thoughts about not applying again. You know how you always hear that “the third time’s a charm?” Well, there’s a competing version of that rule that goes, “three strikes and you’re out.” With a lot of encouragement from good friends and colleagues, I figured I would test those two hypotheses, and discovered that, at least for me, the third time was the charm.
I was driving on my way home from Boise when I got the call from the Governor’s office. I had been training a group of new judges as part of my assignment on the New Judge Orientation Faculty. After the initial feelings of relief in knowing that this process was finally over, my next reaction was gratitude for all the people that were instrumental to me along the way. It had been almost 30 years since a sitting judge from eastern Idaho had been appointed to the Idaho Supreme Court, and I was very mindful that I didn’t have the ability to change that myself. I spent the rest of the drive home reflecting on all the decisions, choices, cases, mentors, clients, and serendipitous things that happened in my life over the years that lead to that moment.
2) Q. As an alum of the J. Reuben Clark Law School, what advice do you have for current students and recent graduates who are seeking to make a difference in their community?
A. There are all kinds of ways to make a difference. The easiest way is to just get involved and grow wherever you are planted. As a new lawyer, you will be imbued with knowledge that other people don’t have—that they need. You’ll meet people at parties and community events that will ask you questions about important decisions in their lives. In hindsight, I realize that some of the most important legal advice I ever gave to people, I gave informally, without even billing for it. Just bumping into somebody at church, or at a ballgame, you will be asked “a quick question.” Sometimes it will be a random phone call. Just get involved in your community. As a young attorney, the most important thing you can do is network and make connections. Join a service club and volunteer for local boards, like the chamber of commerce or a free medical clinic.
I’d like to put in a plug for the advantages of working in a small-town practice. I know that most law school graduates have their sights set on big cities, which is understandable, but one thing I have learned is that you can get a lot more opportunities to make a difference, and can do so more quickly, by working in a small community. Your ability to make a difference is magnified in a small community. Small communities need good, young attorneys. You will have an opportunity to do so much, so quickly. I handled some very big cases out of my six-person firm in Rexburg and I learned that contrary to conventional wisdom, you can do big things in small places. It’s interesting to me that of the five justices on the Idaho Supreme Court right now, all our careers began in relatively small, rural towns in Idaho: Twin Falls, Burley, Jerome, Rexburg, and Moscow.
3) Q. What was it about To Kill A Mockingbird that specifically inspired you at such a young age?
A. When I was in 10th grade, I saw the movie and read the book. There is a scene right after the trial is over when Tom Robinson was wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. The courtroom had cleared except for the black folks who were still sitting up in the balcony, which was unfortunately the segregated part of the courtroom. Atticus’ children were sitting up there with them, and as Atticus was putting his briefcase away and getting ready to leave the courtroom, all the people began to stand. His young daughter was wondering what was going on, likely because she knew that in court, the only time people stand is when the judge or jury enters or leaves the courtroom. So, she asks the minister standing next to her, “Why are they standing?” and the minister told her, “Because your father is passing.”
When I experienced that as a 10th grader, I felt a chill go up my spine, and the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and I knew at that moment that someday I was going to be an attorney. I also somehow knew at that moment that someday I would be called upon to represent an innocent person in a big case, just as Atticus Finch had in the book.
4) Q. There is a popular story that involves you and Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Either you wrote her a letter personally, or someone sent a copy of a speech you gave to her office, but she responded by sending you an autographed copy of her book. Can you clear up that story? What exactly happened?
A. My first year out of law school, I was appointed to represent a man who was charged with first-degree murder. We believed he was innocent, and we spent 15 years trying to get justice for him, which we finally did. That story is an amazing story that is too long to tell here. Shortly after I became a judge in 2009, I was invited to give a speech about the book, To Kill A Mockingbird. Somebody had heard the story of how the book inspired me to be an attorney, and knew that that book had been very instrumental in my life. After I gave the speech, the family of Mr. Grube (the man we had represented all those years) wanted a copy of the speech to send to Mr. Grube’s brother, an Anglican minister in Nevada. So, I gave them a copy. Unbeknownst to me, Mr. Grube’s brother sent the speech to Lee’s publicist in New York City. The publicist informed him that Lee had had a stroke and was in a nursing home. . . He took the liberty of forwarding my speech to a minister (that regularly visited with her in the nursing home). Then the minister called me up, and said, “I just came from a nursing home, where I read your speech to Harper Lee.” He told me that she was very moved by my story, and how much she appreciated it. Then it got even better. About ten days later, I received a signed copy of To Kill A Mockingbird in the mail that was personally inscribed to me by Harper Lee.
5) Q. As an adjunct professor at BYU-Idaho, you helped educate the next generation about law and politics. In your opinion, what is the best way that teachers, parents, and anyone who so desires can teach true, founding principles of freedom to their children or friends?
A. The thing we always hear about in law school is that it teaches you how to think, and I believe that that is really important in all aspects of education. Sometimes there is too much emphasis on teaching young people what to think instead of how to think. As a teacher, your goal shouldn’t necessarily be to imbue your opinion in someone else; rather, it should be to teach them true principles and then help them develop a framework for developing their own views on things. Teaching shouldn’t be about conveying one-sided perspectives and ideological propaganda to the next generation. A teacher is a success not only when he or she objectively passes on his or her wisdom and knowledge, but, more importantly, when he or she passes on the ability to think critically and discern truth from error. Faith can play a vital role in this, which is why there is an important role for universities like BYU.
6) Q. During your swearing in ceremony, you mentioned the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in almost the same breath. How have these documents helped shape the values and principles you live by? How do you respond to those who seem to disregard their inspired nature?
A. It’s important to understand that there is a difference between the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Every judge swears an oath to uphold it. The Declaration of Independence, although it contains no binding legal authority, is still a very important document because it contains the aspirations of the founders of our newborn nation. Like the goals contained in the Preamble to the Constitution, many have been achieved, while many still are a work in process. I remind myself of the content of both documents frequently and have tried to do my best in my roles as an attorney, a judge, and now a justice to defend the Constitution.
7) Q. As a “guardian of our Constitution,” do you believe that our Constitution can last another 230 years? What role can everyday people play in preserving in?
A. 230 years might sound like a long time, but relatively speaking, it’s not. Our nation is still one of the youngest nations in the world. Certainly, one of the youngest among the traditional powers. So, I don’t see why it couldn’t last that long or longer. However, given the exponentially increasing rate of change in the world, both technological and societal, I would be surprised if it lasts that long without some amendments. It has been amended a surprisingly few times over the last 230 years, which is a testament to the framers’ wisdom and vision. The document itself is intended to survive and to be self-perpetuating. So, if it doesn’t survive, I don’t believe it will be because of a shortcoming in the document itself; rather, I think it will be because of a shortcoming in the people it was meant to serve and unite. As long as we don’t abandon the principles enshrined within it, I don’t see why it can’t last another 230 years… or longer.
8) Q. In a society where everyone seems to push their own private agenda, it can be hard not to develop one of your own. You said in your swearing-in ceremony: “I have no agenda, but justice.” Can you elaborate on what it means to have an agenda of justice?
A. When I said that. . . I was trying to explain my judicial philosophy, which is that it is our job as judges to follow the law, and it is important that we do so. As an attorney, what I found was that you’re often trying to decide who is right. As a judge, your primary function is to decide what is right? The questions of, “Who’s right?” and, “What’s right?” are a little different. I’ve always found that it is easier for me to determine what’s right rather than who’s right—and what’s right is that we follow the law and apply it to the facts. Now, when the law is not clear on an issue, that’s when the most challenging work of an appellate judge begins.
9) Q. Seeing as your new appointment will set the precedent for other cases in the state of Idaho, some would say there is an added pressure to your position. What do you do that helps you execute sound judgment under this kind of “pressure” or added weight?
A. As a district judge, I handled many large and small cases, but those small cases were just as important to the people involved as the bigger cases. As an appellate judge, I still see both large and small cases, but the stakes seem to be much higher and the legal questions consistently more difficult. The added pressure I feel now is that the decisions I make have a statewide impact, and that naturally causes a lot more reflection in order to avoid unintended consequences and impractical legal precedents.
10) Q. As you know, BYU fosters an environment that is conducive to the Spirit of the Lord. Ultimately, our goal is to invite others to come unto the Jesus Christ. As you have progressed and advanced in your professional career, how have you continued to foster such an environment and invite others to come unto our Savior?
A. Keeping balance in our lives, and compartmentalizing as necessary, is essential to maintaining a proper environment in our homes. Just as the decades of our lives pass through discernible seasons, the hours of our daily lives are constantly moving between our faith, our families, our jobs, and sometimes our hobbies and interests. While these things can often be successfully blended together, at other times they must be kept separate. However, the one thing they must always be is “in balance.” Doing so cultivates an environment where we can find fulfillment and inspiration, as well as opportunities to extend our influence to neighbors and friends.
I think that the biggest thing we can do to affect the world, from the perspective of our faith, is the manner by which we live our lives and raise our families. I’ve just tried to live up to the values I’ve been taught, and to pass them on to my family. I have not forgotten (because I am often reminded) that no matter what my current job assignment or church calling is, my most important job is to be a loving husband to my wife and a good father to my children. I have now been promoted to “grandfather” seven times, which is as fun as it is important. I love these assignments more than any others. My professional careers as an attorney and a judge have been fulfilling, and have hopefully allowed me to extend my reach by serving my community in a positive way, but in the eternal scheme of things, they are simply what I do when I’m not being “dad” or “grandpa.”