The silence is heavy between trials on the second floor of the Missoula federal courthouse. But silence is golden when U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy packs for an Irish getaway.
Now 17 years into his appointment as a federal judge, Molloy has adjudicated his share of landmark cases, from U.S. v. W.R. Grace & Co. to a host of rulings on endangered species in the Northern Rockies.
But it is Molloy’s work building ties between the law programs at the University of Montana and the University of College Cork in Ireland that brings a smile to his face, and gets him talking on a Friday afternoon with vacation looming.
“It’s been a real interesting foray,” Molloy said last week, seated in his downtown Missoula office. “It’s been interesting having Irish law students in the classes I’ve been involved with. As Americans, we have a myopic view of living in a democracy. It’s good to get a broader perspective.”
The University of College Cork will recognize Molloy’s work as a federal judge and a transatlantic diplomat this Friday by awarding him an honorary doctorate degree at a ceremony in Cork.
The announcement came as a big surprise, Molloy said, but it is one he’s eager to accept, especially in person. It gets him back to Ireland – his family’s roots – and gives him another crack at culling an exchange program he’s been nursing for years.
“It’s a tremendous advantage to future lawyers,” Molloy said of the program. “We share a common source of law (with Ireland), and yet it’s different. The exchange is an excellent program and hopefully it can blossom more.”
Ruth McDonnell, communications director for the University of College Cork, said the school hosted Molloy and UM Law School faculty members in 2011, followed in 2012 by UCC President Michael Murphy’s visit to UM. The exchanges serve as a meeting of the minds – an exploration of ideas and how to grow the ties between the schools.
Students from Cork teach Irish at UM for one term while attending the School of Law. While in Montana, they clerk in Molloy’s office, as well as other regional courtrooms. The program also has expanded to the geology program, and supporters are looking for new opportunities to reach other areas.
“We’re particularly privileged that an American lawyer and judge of the caliber of Molloy is a friend of UCC and a strong supporter of our law students,” McDonnell said. “He has a distinguished record of service, not only as a lawyer and a judge, but also as a public servant.”
Molloy named the Irish students clerking in his office. He then named the Irish-rooted families in Butte, the Irish-serving faculty at the university, and how he’s commonly asked in Ireland if he knows so-and-so in Montana of such-and-such clan, which he often does.
His own family has deep roots in the Irish community. Butte, he notes, was once considered Ireland’s fifth province. At the turn of the 20th century, Butte had more Irish residents per capita than any other American city, including Boston.
“My family is 100 percent Irish, both on my mother’s side and my father’s side,” Molloy proudly noted. “All my great-grandparents came from Ireland. Both my parents were from Butte.”
In a moment of thought, Molloy recalled his father, a Malta doctor. The family patriarch wore his Irish heritage on his sleeve – almost literally, Molloy says, noting the green suit coats his father commonly selected for the job.
“He was Irish over the top, but he fostered a real interest in our Irish heritage,” Molloy said. “It has always been a part of our lives.”
It’s that commitment to his Irish heritage that also has impressed the University of College Cork. While back issues of the National Law Review and Federal Lawyer adorn the tabletops in Molloy’s downtown office, books on Ireland pack his personal library at home.
Though he suggested not challenging his mastery of the Irish language, Molloy completed an Irish class from UCC graduate Traolach O’Riordain, who now heads the Irish Studies program at UM.
“He’s very proud of his Irish roots in Donegal, located in the northwestern part of Ireland, and I understand that his children bear Irish names,” said McDonnell. “He has a strong personal interest in his Irish heritage.”
Molloy’s work as a federal judge also has earned him a reputation overseas. The University of College Cork noted the “significant environmental rights cases” he has adjudicated in recent years, from issues surrounding the gray wolf and grizzly bear to W.R. Grace.
When he considers his legacy as a judge, Molloy doesn’t think about the cases he’s heard as much as the system he helped to build. When former President Bill Clinton appointed him to the bench in 1996 – a political process he described as unpleasant – courtrooms across the District of Montana were inadequate and the district itself, he said, was mediocre.
The cities of Helena, Billings and Great Falls now have new buildings housing federal courthouses. The District of Montana has emerged as one of the best and most efficient in the nation.
“I wanted the best district in the U.S. in how we dealt with cases and with people,” Molloy said. “We’ve gone from a district in the middle of the pack to one of the best.”
Molloy’s cases have been far reaching and lasting. He blocked the removal of gray wolves from the endangered species list and dismissed a lawsuit filed by Montana and other states looking to step out from under federal gun laws.
He found a U.S. Forest Service plan for dropping retardant on wildfires illegal, and said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service arbitrarily excluded parts of Montana and other Western states from critical habitat for the Canada lynx.
In 2009, Molloy also presided over the criminal trial of W.R. Grace and three company executives who were acquitted of knowingly allowing human exposure to asbestos at the company’s mine near Libby.
“I’ve tried to keep my perspective on the functions of a judge,” Molloy said. “I don’t invite cases. When they come in, I deal with them on the basis and facts of the law. But in this job, you can’t make everyone happy.”