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The New Jersey federal judge who is overseeing five massive asbestos bankruptcy cases has refused to disqualify himself, insisting in a 106-page decision that he is “free of outside influence” and directly urging an appeals court to allow him to continue. The opinion by Senior U.S. District Judge Alfred M. Wolin in In Re: Owens Corning, et al. denied several motions by asbestos company lawyers asking him to recuse himself due to the appearance of bias. In their motions, the lawyers argued that some of Wolin’s court-appointed advisers suffer from a “blatant conflict” that has infected how the judge views the cases. They also complained that Wolin had refused even to rule on their motions asking for his recusal. In December, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to order Wolin to step aside, but ordered him to rule on the recusal motions promptly. Now Wolin has handed down an opinion that speaks directly to the appellate court, defending his use of a team of advisers, explaining his creative and novel approaches to case management in such a massive case, and answering his critics’ charges point for point. “This court will not deny that it adopted an activist role in … case management,” Wolin wrote. “Likewise, through the appointment of its advisers, the court surrounded itself with persons who possessed a wealth of knowledge relevant to the history of asbestos litigation and its case management. They were a resource of impeccable credentials and even as the court writes this opinion their expertise remains unchallenged.” And now that he has gained the education he needs, Wolin said it would be wrong to step aside and force another judge to take over. “As a senior judge, it would be very easy for this court to recuse itself and avoid the bruising battle that has raged for the past three and one-half months. While that course of action may have had personal appeal, from an institutional perspective it was unacceptable,” Wolin wrote. Wolin said that when he was first assigned by former 3rd Circuit Chief Judge Edward R. Becker to take over the five bankruptcies — W.R. Grace, Owens-Corning, Armstrong World, U.S. Gypsum and Federal Mogul — Becker urged Wolin to get creative. In his formal remarks accompanying the appointment, Becker called for “a management plan to try to make a quantum leap forward in the interest of the sound administration of these cases” and “a coordinated plan for management to be developed and implemented.” Wolin said he “accepted Chief Judge Becker’s assignment and his mandate to change how asbestos bankruptcies had been handled to date.” Since then, Wolin said that he believes he “rose to the occasion,” but that he could never have accomplished his tasks without the education he received from a group of highly regarded asbestos litigation experts. Although his critics have argued that Wolin chose biased advisers and then proceeded to give them too much power over the cases, Wolin insists that the advisers were brought in purely to educate the court and had no power unless given a specific task by the court. “It became clear to the court that the primary service this distinguished group [of advisers] could render was to give the court the necessary background to understand the proceedings before it,” Wolin wrote. “In short, this court can report to the Court of Appeals that the order appointing the advisers had very little effect at all beyond identifying a cadre of talent and experience which could be drawn upon as the need arose,” Wolin wrote. Wolin also urged the 3rd Circuit to reject his critics’ complaints about his style of managing the cases. “Whether the Court of Appeals agrees with the case management methodology of the District Court should not be the definitive issue for its ultimate decision. The District Court respectfully reminds the Circuit Court of Appeals that the joint administration of these cases has occurred against a backdrop of zero guidelines to assist the court. Rather than condemn the court for venturing into uncharted waters, it is again respectfully suggested that the Court of Appeals carve out what it views as unacceptable case management methodology, establish future case management rules, and permit the District Court to finish its appointed duty,” Wolin wrote. From the beginning, Wolin said, he could see that “if the court did not quickly learn how to manage these cases, these cases would manage the court.” After assembling a team of advisers, Wolin said, the court held a series of meetings with the goal of taking a crash course in asbestos litigation history. “The overwhelming tenor of these meetings was general policy and historical background information for the court. All or most of this information was available to the court from other sources, although … the process might have consumed years and the information may have included much unwritten custom and practice,” Wolin wrote. Wolin said the lawyers urging the appellate court to take him off the case have mischaracterized the role the advisers played. In their briefs, Wolin said, the lawyers “seize on isolated references in the record to argue that the advisers were impermissibly telling the court how to rule. They were not.” Instead, Wolin said, the information the court received from the advisers was properly used in administration of the cases. “Judges each and every day of their judicial existence carefully weigh information that is provided to them and extract what is relevant and necessary to render a decision. Their views are not molded by substantive advice from others, and they possess the rugged independence to make their own decisions,” Wolin wrote. “This court possesses this type of independence. The decisions of the court were rendered in the same manner it has rendered decisions throughout its career — free of outside influence,” Wolin stated. Wolin urged the appellate court to give trial judges the freedom to be creative in case management, especially in mass tort cases, and to acquire the education needed to tackle the case wisely. “In this age of information as it explodes into our society from countless sources, electronic as well as traditional, the District Court cannot be limited to what counsel choose to present to the court. Certainly, such an artificial constraint on the court’s knowledge is incompatible with the type of case management envisioned by Chief Judge Becker,” Wolin wrote

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