Martin Feldman

On a temperate afternoon this fall, Martin L.C. 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.     

More recently, he served a seven-year stint on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington, D.C., a secretive panel that authorizes federal eavesdropping in terrorism and espionage investigations. His work in that part-time capacity was so sensitive he refused to discuss it with his best friend, Antonin Scalia, the U.S. 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. He drinks Beefeater gin martinis — often at lunch — and relishes West Coast jazz. He takes pride in his appearance and is partial to sharp tailoring.

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.

"He's indomitable," said Bill Pryor, the former Alabama attorney general who serves on the 11th U.S. 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.  

He earned his degree in 1957 and became the first law clerk of John Minor Wisdom, a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge who 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. 

Feldman remains cynical about politics, and he outright opposes elected judgeships. But he owes his own lifetime appointment to political connections. A lifelong Republican, he served as special counsel to the state GOP and to former Louisiana Gov. Dave Treen.  

In 1983, the governor received a call from the White House about a seat on the New Orleans federal bench that had opened upon the death of U.S. District Judge Jack M. Gordon. Treen asked Feldman whether he was interested.

Within weeks of his nomination, Feldman had been confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Looking back, the judge said he was astonished by how seamless the vetting process was, particularly compared to the partisan gridlock that judicial nominees often encounter today. 

It didn't take long for Feldman to realize the power he wielded in his new role. On his first day on the bench, he handled a petition to delay the execution of Benjamin Berry, a man who had murdered a guard during a bank robbery in Metairie. Feldman granted the stay, but Berry was executed a few years later in Louisiana's electric chair.       

Old-fashioned conservative 

Feldman's name emerged at times for a possible appointment to an appellate judgeship. But he's shown no interest in such a role, in large part because he is addicted to the drama and banter of the trial courtroom.

Attorneys are typically of two minds about practicing before Feldman. Some appreciate his meticulous level of preparation and intolerance for nonsense. Others feel belittled — if not outright insulted — by his temperamental sidebars and short fuse. One lawyer recalled seeing a Post-it note behind Feldman's bench that read, "Patience, Patience, Patience."

Feldman is known to inveigh against "false theater" and "Tulane and Broad" tactics, a jab at the less genteel goings-on at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.

In recent years, he has seemed personally offended by prosecutions he views as a waste of federal resources, such as the 2015 trial of New Orleans lawyer Michael Arata and Hollywood producer Peter Hoffman on tax fraud charges. Feldman reversed the jury's guilty verdicts on more than a dozen counts in that case, issuing a 124-page polemic in which he railed against prosecutors' "mean-spirited hype."

"He doesn't suffer fools well," said Pat Fanning, a former prosecutor who has practiced in federal court for 40 years. Fanning represented Hoffman's ex-wife, Susan, who was convicted of conspiracy in the tax fraud case. 

"If you come into his court and you're prepared and don't (mess) up, you'll like him a lot because he knows the law and is quick with his rulings. If you go in there unprepared or waste his time with some frivolous motion, you'll be looking over your shoulder at your ass seeing what's left of it after he's finished chewing on it." 

Another veteran defense attorney, Arthur "Buddy" Lemann, described Feldman as a "complex person."

"He portrays himself as being ancient. His suits come from England, and he likes walking around with a cane," Lemann said. "But he thinks in a modern sense, and he's reasonable, even if he's ruffled by something."  

Feldman considers himself conservative, but in the traditional sense. In an interview before Christmas, he denounced Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate, as a "right-wing nut."  

In the courtroom, Feldman typically errs on the side of limited government. Some of his most important rulings have been notable not for an action he ordered but for his refusal to disrupt the status quo. "Those not accountable to the public ought to stay out of the business of legislating," he told an interviewer three decades ago, a succinct synopsis of conservative distaste for judicial overreach.

One such decision came about two years into his tenure on the federal bench. In 1985, amid rising tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, Feldman was asked to intervene in a controversy involving Myroslaw Medvid, a Ukrainian seaman who jumped off a Russian merchant vessel near Belle Chasse and swam a quarter-mile to the bank of the Mississippi River.   

Soaking wet and visibly nervous, Medvid carried a note that read "Policia" and "Novi Orlean." He was interviewed by local authorities, telling them through an interpreter that he wished to remain in the U.S. American officials ordered him returned to his vessel, but Medvid again jumped overboard before being forcibly returned to the ship.   

The fate of the seaman became a national sensation, as the State Department scrambled to determine whether Medvid actually wanted asylum. In subsequent interviews, he said he wished to return to the Soviet Union, though some officials said that he appeared to have been drugged by the Soviets.  

Feldman heard testimony on a motion that sought to prevent Medvid from being taken out of the country. Despite the "enormous emotional and humanitarian appeal" of the request, he ruled that "no amount of self-centered patriotism compels this court to conclude that the judiciary should insert itself into the foreign policy of this country."

Medvid ultimately returned home and was not executed for the attempted defection. 

"The desire to learn the truth is understandably compelling," Feldman wrote. "But the wisdom of doing so should be decided by the proper branch of government, not the federal judiciary."

'It says what it says' 

The judge expressed similar views when he upheld Louisiana's ban on same-sex unions in 2014, a ruling that was trumped the following year when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. His opinion stood out at a time when other federal jurists around the country were ruling that gay couples' right to equal treatment trumped a state's authority to define marriage. 

Feldman insisted Louisiana had a "legitimate interest" in addressing the meaning of marriage through the "democratic process." He took particular criticism for suggesting, at the outset of his ruling, that homosexuality was a "lifestyle choice."

Like an umpire making a close call at home plate, Feldman said he knew the opinion would elate one side while rankling the other. "I called it as I saw it," he said. "I thought it needed to have a free and open debate."    

Feldman does not liken his own jurisprudence to that of Scalia, the late Supreme Court justice known for his uncompromising conservatism. But he said he and his friend agreed that "when you take the robe, your personal opinion no longer matters." 

"I don’t understand how a judge can infect a statute or the Constitution with his or her notion of what it ought to be," Feldman said. "It says what it says."

Perhaps the most lasting lesson Feldman learned from Wisdom, the 5th Circuit appellate judge, has been to keep an open mind. Raised Jewish, he converted to Catholicism nearly a decade ago, receiving the sacrament of baptism at a private ceremony.

Feldman's spiritual journey was significantly affected by his friendship with Scalia, a devout Catholic. The men traveled around Europe together and spent many late nights talking about faith and the law. Today, Feldman carries Scalia's rosary, an item he cherishes more than his conference room full of accolades.

"It was love at first sight," Feldman said, recalling the first time he met Scalia, years ago at a party in New Orleans. "I've had a blessed life."

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.