The judge who blocked the Obama administration's moratorium on deep-water oil drilling has a reputation as a stern jurist, but until now he has sparked little controversy during his 27-year judicial career.
With a reversal record since 2000 that is the second-lowest among the judges of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, Martin Feldman has navigated his position without much drama. Within the New Orleans legal community, the 1983 Reagan appointee has a reputation for demanding exactness and little tolerance for missteps from the attorneys who appear in his court.
"He can be terrifying," said a New Orleans attorney who didn't want to be identified because the judge has presided over some of his cases.
Since 2000, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed Feldman 10 times, affirmed 107 out of 159 of his decisions and dismissed 24 appeals.
Of the seven other judges in his jurisdiction who have held seats since 2000, only Chief Judge Sarah Vance has seen fewer reversals -- three. Of reversals and vacaturs combined, Feldman was the third best, with 18. Vance had seven and Judge Thomas Porteous Jr. had 17.
Statistics cited in this article were based on a review of court records on Westlaw.
The nearly three decades of relative quiet for Feldman, born in 1934, were disrupted on June 22, when he struck down the administration's six-month ban on deep-water oil drilling. The moratorium followed the BP disaster in the Gulf Coast. Feldman ruled that the BP spill did not warrant a ban on all drilling in the gulf.
As news broke of his decision, it emerged that Feldman held as much as $15,000 in stock in Transocean Ltd., the company that owned the drilling rig in the BP disaster. Feldman had listed those assets in his 2008 financial disclosure, plus investments in at least eight other energy companies. The judge did not return a telephone call requesting an interview for this story.
New Orleans attorney Daniel Lund III, a partner with Shields Mott Lund, described Feldman as fair. Conversations with Feldman are "tinged with a lot of authority. You don't go into a conference with him underprepared," he said. Lund, whose practice focuses on commercial construction litigation, represented a roofing company in an insurance coverage case heard by Feldman. Granting summary judgment to the insurer, Feldman ruled that Lund's client was not covered. Lund appealed and the 5th Circuit reversed. Lund said that the judge was "reasonable," albeit "very direct."
Of the 4,720 cases that Feldman has handled since 2000, 204 have been environmental matters. Of his total cases, 1,250 have involved the insurance industry. He has presided over 161 cases involving the energy sector, the third most common type of case for him.
A 1957 graduate of Tulane University Law School, Feldman was a member of Order of the Coif. He served as chairman of the board of trustees for public television station WYES-TV from 1977 to 1979 and is a past national secretary for the Anti-Defamation League.
From 1959 to 1983, he was an attorney at the old Bronfin, Heller, Feldman, Steinberg & Berens. He served with the U.S. Army Reserve Judge Advocate General Corps from 1957 to 1963 and clerked for Judge John Minor Wisdom of the 5th Circuit after law school. He was a delegation secretary for Richard Nixon during the 1968 Republican National Convention.
In 1994, he rejected an appeal by condemned killer Antonio James, who was executed in 1996. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel quoted him in 2004 describing himself as a supporter of the death penalty but a "very strong believer in as just and fair and good representation as humanly possible of those who face the ultimate punishment."
Last month, Feldman began a seven-year term on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the body that considers the government's applications for counterintelligence searches and surveillance.
Locally, Feldman has a reputation as a "demanding and smart judge," said Joel Waltzer, a trial attorney at Waltzer & Associates, which has three offices in the Gulf Coast area. "He doesn't have a lot of patience for incompetence." Waltzer added, "You have to have your ducks in a row."
The attorney represented an environmental group and a coalition of New Orleans residents who in 2006 sought a temporary restraining order to shut down a landfill adjacent to a wildlife refuge. Feldman denied the order. The plaintiffs ultimately blocked the landfill in state court.
"I guess he did the best he could," Waltzer said.
The Obama administration has announced that it will issue a new moratorium on deep-water drilling soon that will not have the flaws Feldman cited in striking down the first one. The Eastern District of Louisiana has 12 seats, one of w
hich is vacant. Bill Clinton appointed seven of the court's active judges and George W. Bush appointed three. Feldman is the only active judge who is a Reagan appointee.