23 June 2010

Judge Feldman and the conflict of interests

My frequent correspondent Cryhmethinc notes in a comment on my post on the decision striking down the moratorium on deepwater drilling that Martin Feldman, the judge who wrote the ruling, appears to have a conflict of interest based on his ownership of oil-and-gas industry stock. In a subsequent conversation, Crhymethinc expressed his surprise that the media only discovered Feldman's stock-ownership after the decision, despite reports from earlier this month that warned that a large number of judges in the region are similarly compromised. More surprising to him was the government's failure to demand that Feldman recuse himself, as some stockholding judges have done, not to mention the Obama administration's failure since the decision to force the conflict-of-interest question to the forefront of the discussion. The blogosphere has pounced on the news, of course, and Republicans are defending Feldman on the stubborn ground that his integrity is not to be questioned, though that of the government is to be at every moment. From what I've read during a quick examination on the subject, the rules don't require a judge to recuse himself if his potentially-compromising holdings are part of a mutual fund over which he exercises no control in investment or selling decisions. I don't know if this was Feldman's case, but unless he invests in a blind mutual fund, where he wouldn't even know what's being invested in, he would presumably be aware of the stocks in which the fund invests and how his decisions might influence their performance on the stock exchange. His decision itself, however it holds up as law, quite blatantly prioritizes economic over environmental interests, leaving his integrity perfectly open to question no matter how much such questioning outrages Republicans. But the Obama administration's failure to date to question Feldman's integrity more aggressively raises Crhymethinc's suspicions about the government's own intentions. While an appeal and a new moratorium order are promised, Obama's perceived failure to confront an enabler of deepwater drilling makes some observers question whether the President really meant to take decisive action to regulate drilling or simply sought to take a symbolic action that would only look better to most of his acolytes when it was inevitably struck down by a mean old judge. Feldman struck down the moratorium in part because he thought it half-assed in proving the alleged imminent threat to life; was it meant to be like that? That's the sort of question asked by people who see the Gulf spill as a national emergency that has not received a proportionate response from the government. While the Republicans seem confused over whether to exploit the spill as "Obama's Katrina" or downplay its threat to the environment, another opposition seems more convinced that it's the former -- an equivalent failure of government to do what many people think is its business. While the nation seems to be in an anti-government mood, the spill may help bring to the surface a hitherto-silent body of opinion, possibly a majority, that sees a pressing need for more government, in the right places, than ever. If so, we should see signs of its spread soon enough.

Update: If you scroll toward the bottom of this page, you'll see some uncertainty over whether Judge Feldman still owns the oil or oil-related stocks he disclosed back in 2008. It seems that no one can say definitely that he doesn't, and one person interviewed for this particular story is bold enough to say that if Feldman's continued ownership can be verified, his ruling should be rescinded. That person has no power, however.

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