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In His Own Words…

It is a rare and fortunate individual who identifies a career path at an early age, successfully develops and executes a plan to make it happen (with the guidance of a supportive family and community), and learns along the way that what began as job, then evolved into a career, has been further transformed into a lifetime calling. In that light, the story of The Tony Moss Firm truly represents the fulfillment of one man’s personal and professional destiny.

I was born Reginald Anthony Moss, Jr., in January 1958 in Tallahassee, Florida. From the age of three, I was raised in Tarboro, a farming and textile town in northeastern North Carolina, the eldest of five children whose parents, Reginald Sr. and Judith Moss, are retired, third-generation educators who still live there.

In the early 1970s, as I, along with my junior high school peers, tried to navigate the uncharted, often-turbulent waters of mandatory school desegregation, Edgecombe County became a reluctant venue for the event that most clearly forged my future destiny. In a hotly contested case, three local black men were prosecuted for the alleged rape of a white woman, convicted, and sentenced to North Carolina’s Death Row. (The initial accusation took place during a chance encounter between the woman and a friend of her mother’s, at a convenience store barely half a mile from my family’s home.) This was during an era in which virtually all Southern states authorized the death penalty for rape, even if the complainant did not suffer death or serious physical injury. The sordid history of these statutes and their disproportionate application to black men has been well documented.

As was typical of that era–and sadly still is today, in many parts of the country–all of the major players except the defendants themselves were white, especially the jury. Through my firsthand exposure, not only to the legal inequities, but to the social and emotional issues the case unearthed, I truly became acutely aware of the nature and virulence of racially-based injustice in the South, especially in the capital context. (Eventually the sentences were commuted and the men released.)

At the same time, however, I took inspiration from the stellar examples of Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, William B. Hastie, Wiley Branton (my eventual law school dean), and countless other giants of the African-American bar—men and women who secured fundamental social change through their legal acumen and rhetorical virtuosity. Fortunately, one of those role models sat merely a few pews away at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. He was Jesse (Chuck) Baker, Jr., one of Tarboro’s first African-American attorneys if not the first, whose unquestioned professional competence and selfless grace inspire me to this day.

This wellspring of motivation guided me to a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Hampton (VA) Institute (now Hampton University) in 1981, and to a Juris Doctor degree from the alma mater of many of those legal giants, Howard University School of Law (DC), in 1984. Responding to a longtime desire to return to Florida, I began my legal career in the Tallahassee area, with stints at Legal Services of North Florida, Inc., and with a small civil firm in Quincy. Eventually I relocated to Miami and joined the criminal defense bar on March 28, 1988, being hired as an Assistant Public Defender for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit. During my tenure in the Felony and Juvenile Divisions of one of the nation’s most highly respected public defender services, I handled hundreds of trial-level cases involving charges ranging from trespass on school grounds to attempted murder and sexual battery. However, I eventually saw that my optimal path to career excellence would not be in government practice.

With that in mind, I brought in the New Year of 1991 by embarking upon my career as a solo practitioner, handling civil and bankruptcy matters as well as my first love of criminal defense. Within four years, honoring Tarboro’s call to destiny, I became a faithful suitor to that first love. To this day, my practice is dedicated solely to representation of the criminally accused, at the trial and post-trial levels.

I’m often asked what leads me and my colleagues in the criminal bar to dedicate a lifetime of service to an area in which the stakes are so fundamental and so high, emotions are often so raw, and the facts we confront are often so sordid. For me, at least, I take great pride in employing my talents and experience in the service, not only of each client, but of an ideal: that the Constitution and Bill of Rights remain history’s greatest protections of the individual against the unchecked power of the government. In that sense, I consider myself an heir to the proud legacy of my professional ancestors who took on clients who were often unlikeable, and causes that were frequently unpopular, so that the principle of equal justice under law may yet withstand the test of time for future generations.

Let me close by sharing with you the other event that has most indelibly shaped my professional path. In my first year at Howard Law, I roomed with my maternal uncle, Edward (Tim) Lewis, who was a graduate student across town at American University and had been a young adult during the turbulence of the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras.

One night, as he was describing his participation in a student protest against something or other, I commented that I often felt as if I’d been born too late, and that the feeling gave me a palpable sense of frustration. He asked me to explain. I replied that, having become an adult after that era had passed, I never had the chance to actively join other progressive souls in bringing about the more just and equal society that seemed so within reach in the ‘60s.

Tim’s reply has remained with me ever since. This conversation took place during the first year of the Reagan Administration; and we both knew that, for better or for worse, some seismic shifts were coming to American culture and politics. He reminded me that, whenever such shifts take place, the less fortunate members of society are the first to be caught between the tectonic plates, and that they would always be in need of articulate, skilled advocates in a variety of forums. As a history major, I knew this intuitively.

He then went on to say, and I’m paraphrasing:

“Right now you’re doing exactly what you have to do for the next movement, whatever it may be. You’re getting your law degree. You do that, you pass your bar exam, and don’t worry about finding a cause. Your cause will find you.”

Thirty years later, it certainly has.

Tony Moss

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