Judge Who Struck Down Moratorium Invests In Oil

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The federal judge who struck down the Obama administration's six-month moratorium on deepwater oil drilling has a number of investments in oil- and gas-related companies. Questions are now being raised about whether Judge Martin Feldman's decision Tuesday could have been influenced by those investments.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, told Congress today that he's working on a new moratorium on deepwater oil drilling. That's after a federal judge in New Orleans yesterday blocked the Obama administration's previous drilling plan. But the judge's decision was surprising, in part because federal agencies usually have broad powers to regulate industries. It's also surprising in this detail about the man behind the ruling. Judge Martin Feldman had financial investments in the oil industry as recently as 2008.

NPR's Robert Smith has the story.

ROBERT SMITH: Judge Feldman gave the oil industry everything it wanted in the lawsuit. He slapped down and ridiculed the Obama administration's decisions. He argued that an accident on just one rig, the Deepwater Horizon, did not mean that all rigs are dangerous. What Feldman didn't mention in court was that as recently as 2008, he held stock in the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon.

Feldman had between $1,000 and $15,000 in TransOcean Limited. But some environmental groups say no matter how little the amount, the judge should have stepped aside. Kate Gordon studies energy with the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress.

Ms. KATE GORDON (Center for American Progress): It would be one thing if it were sort of three steps removed financial interest, but we're talking about dividend checks to this judge for a company who has two contracts that are being canceled because of the moratorium. That's pretty direct.

SMITH: Now, I should make this clear - we don't know if Judge Feldman still owns stock in TransOcean. He hasn't reported yet for this year. And TransOcean was not a plaintiff in this case. But as of 2008, Judge Feldman did have a whole bunch of small investments in energy stocks: Parker Drilling, Hercules Offshore, Halliburton.

Ed Sherman, a law professor at Tulane University, says that's not really surprising. Anyone with a diversified portfolio is going to have oil. And Sherman says that owning stocks in a broad industry doesn't mean you can't rule on cases in that industry.

Professor ED SHERMAN (Law, Tulane University): Judge Feldman is a respected judge, and he did make a careful opinion. I would be surprised if that ownership of small amounts of stock would affect him in any way.

SMITH: Feldman is, after all, a pretty conservative judge to start with, appointed by Ronald Reagan, a close friend of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Still, the financial disclosure looked bad.

Professor CHARLES GEYH (Law, Indiana University): One needs to be a little bit more mindful of public perception, I think.

SMITH: Charles Geyh, a professor of law at Indiana University, says this is a make-or-break series of cases for the petroleum industry.

Mr. GEYH: There are going to be people who are worrying this issue like a sore tooth. And they're going to be suspicious of everything. You really need to ask yourself whether a reasonable person, who's fully informed, would doubt the judge's impartiality.

SMITH: And it's just going to get harder and harder to find judges that everyone trusts as the number of legal cases in the gulf balloons. The Associated Press found that almost 60 percent of active judges in the region report some sort of financial tie to the oil and gas industry. And by the way, if Judge Feldman does still own TransOcean stock, he has lost a ton of money. It's half of what it was worth three months ago. And yesterday's decision didn't help the closing stock price.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New Orleans.

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