college water polo ‘indomitable’ judge Martin Feldman
Feldman indulged in a bout of nostalgia in his spacious study, searching high and low for the only poem he’s ever had published.
He bent over at the waist against his doctor’s directions and emerged with a yellowed copy of “They Killed Cock Robin,” a wistful relic of his short lived writing career.
As a federal judge and spry widower, Feldman is unaccustomed to orders that don’t come from a higher court. He wields what he describes as “overwhelming” power, deciding the fate of career criminals and overseeing high stakes civil litigation.
In 1985, as he was cutting his teeth on the federal bench in New Orleans, he refereed a Cold War asylum dispute that unfolded in the murky waters of the Mississippi River. The international drama, involving a Soviet seaman who had jumped ship, threatened to start World War III, as Feldman recalls it. Supreme Court justice who died last year.
So in the refuge of his stately home off St. Charles Avenue, Feldman holds medical advice in much the same regard as federal sentencing guidelines. Both are non binding, in the judge’s view, and often irritating.
“I have an entire box of poems I could never get published,” Feldman said ruefully, returning to his parlor with the help of a walker. He began reading aloud, unprompted, as if instructing a jury at the end of a lengthy trial.
Two months had passed since a crash that nearly ended his career, and on this October day, the judge had received a positive report from his hip surgeon. The road to recovery was arduous, exacerbated by a broken hip Feldman suffered during his convalescence.
His resolve had been tested like never before the night of Aug. 30, when the collision broke three of his ribs and landed him in the hospital for six weeks.
A chauffeur the judge hired to take him to a social gathering was involved in an accident near Calliope and Tchoupitoulas streets. The judge refused medical treatment at the scene, according to a police report, and was in such a state of shock he didn’t realize he was injured until a few days later.
“I have never, in my entire life, felt my age until this accident,” said Feldman, who will turn 84 in late January.
’90 percent back’Feldman has gradually returned to the bench following an intensive physical therapy regimen, saying just before Christmas that he’s about “90 percent back.” In the interim, his version of taking things easy called for working from home throughout his rehabilitation. He worried his prolonged absence would clog up his docket or even worse burden his colleagues.
“I’m not behind,” he said.
Those who know the judge aren’t surprised by his stubborn return, as Feldman is about as set in his ways as a train on a track.
Once an aspiring linguist, the judge has a knack for pinpointing accents in public, be it a Polish tourist or a waitress from the Midwest. He once bewildered a court reporter by addressing a defendant in Mandarin.
Feldman reads as much as 12 hours a day and writes his opinions by hand, eschewing email and computers. His 2014 refusal to legalize same sex marriage in Louisiana his proudest yet most controversial ruling went through 14 drafts in his study.
When determining a prison sentence, Feldman insists on conducting his own research rather than delegating it to staffers. “My philosophy for 34 years has been that, if I’m going to deny someone their freedom and liberty, I’m going to do the work myself,” he said.
Feldman has been a fixture in the Eastern District of Louisiana court since his 1983 appointment by President Ronald Reagan. And despite his recent hardships, retirement does not appear to be in the offing. When anyone asks when he plans to hang up his robe, he tells them he enjoys his job too much to consider it work.
Once they reach age 65, federal judges may retire or go on “senior status,” overseeing a reduced docket, without taking a pay cut. But neither of those options has ever appealed to Feldman. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. “He’s still performing at a very high level intellectually.”
‘It just grabbed me’Feldman never planned to practice law, let alone become a federal judge. A St. Louis native, he moved to New Orleans at age 17 to study biblical archaeology and linguistics at Tulane University. He switched his major to English before graduating in 1955, convinced he would be a poet.
In a moment of introspection, Feldman told his roommate he was unsure what he would do with his life. “You look like a lawyer, Marty,” his roommate responded. After confirming that assessment in the mirror, Feldman reported to Tulane’s law school and registered on the spot. Circuit Court of Appealsjudgewho would remain a father figure to Feldman until his death in 1999. Wisdom for whom the opulent federal appeals court building in New Orleans is named was a widely revered scholar and liberal Republican who famously wrote in a 1967 school desegregation case that “the Constitution is both color blind and color conscious.”
The clerkship shaped the trajectory of Feldman’s legal career and with notable exceptions his eventual jurisprudence. Wisdom’s robe now hangs in Feldman’s chambers.
As a young attorney, Feldman joined Weinstein, Bronfin Heller, a small firm that specialized in complex commercial litigation. His clients included the likes of Boise Cascade, a timber company; General Dynamics, an aerospace and defense corporation; and Blue Cross of Louisiana,and he traveled the country as a young man doing their bidding in federal court.
Feldman has always loathed parties, but he became something of a socialite in his adopted home of New Orleans. “I fell in love with this place,” he recalled recently in his chambers. “It just grabbed me.”
In 1973, the Fashion Group of New Orleans, a nonprofit women’s group, named Feldman among the 10 best dressed men in the city, a recognition bestowed at the “Prix d’Elegance” at Gallier Hall.
“Neckties tell more about a man than any other item of apparel,” Feldman told the States Item newspaper at the time.
Feldman knew neckties. His late wife, Melanie Pulitzer Feldman, a well known interior designer, was born into the family that ran Wembley Industries, a company that once touted itself as the largest manufacturer of men’s neckwear in the world. In a 1985 profile, The Wall Street Journal described Martin Feldman as a millionaire who owed “much of his wealth” to his spouse.