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Tikkun olam: Justice Stanley Feldman

Stanley Feldman

Stanley G. Feldman, LL.B., has been a leading champion of civil rights in Arizona, and beyond,  for 60 years and counting. He served as an Arizona Supreme Court justice for 21 years, from 1982 to 2002, including five years as chief justice.

Born in the Bronx in 1933, and a Tucson resident since age 5, Feldman graduated first in his University of Arizona Law School class in 1956, shortly after the start of the civil rights movement. Raised in an observant Jewish family, he witnessed ongoing discrimination and injustice from an early age.

“From first grade on, I saw discrimination,” he says. “We had segregated schools for black students up to high school. At Saturday morning kids’ movies at the Fox Theater, black and Mexican kids had to sit in the balcony. In many hotels and restaurants, blacks, Mexican Americans, even Jews, were not permitted. Some neighborhoods were segregated by restrictions … just the Anglo-Saxon race and Christian religion. Growing up and watching this, you begin to think, ‘What’s wrong? What can we do to stop this?’”

Discrimination also impacted  his own family. “My wife, Norma, is Hispanic. Her family can be traced back in this area from the 1830s on, but she was required to go to a segregated school in what is now Gilbert, Arizona.”

From the beginning of his legal career, Feldman felt a deep commitment to civil rights. In the late 1950s, he was involved in the Oyama case, in which a Japanese-American World War II veteran was denied the right to marry an Anglo woman. The case ultimately resulted in the termination of Arizona’s miscegenation law.

He also served on an anti-discrimination committee for the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Acting on behalf of the Jewish community, he recalls, he was able to induce “a certain prominent club in Tucson to mend its ways and allow Jews as members.”

In 1968, he formed the law firm of Miller, Pitt and Feldman, with Bob Miller and Don Pitt. He was a managing partner until 1981, also serving as president of the Pima County Bar Association and the State Bar of Arizona.

From the get-go, the new law firm established itself as a bastion of civil rights. “One thing I’m proud of,” says Feldman, “when we formed our firm in Tucson, we were the first ones to hire women lawyers. There were very few women lawyers at all.” Women proved they were more than capable, he notes. “Rose Silver comes to mind, and the history of Sandra Day O’Connor.” Silver, the first woman graduate of the University of Arizona College of Law, in 1930, later represented gangster John Dillinger following his capture in Tucson. O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.

And, says Feldman, “It was all in one lifetime — mine.”

In 1982, Gov. Bruce Babbitt appointed Feldman, who assisted in Babbitt’s campaign for state attorney general, to the Arizona Supreme Court. Feldman served on the court during the impeachment trial of Gov. Evan Mecham in 1988 and the fraud case of Gov. John Fife Symington III in1997. Asked about his perspective today on those cases, he says: “No one is above the law. That’s a fundamental building block of liberty.”

Feldman also wrote a landmark decision stating that bar owners who overserve alcohol to customers can be held liable for injury or death if the customer is allowed to drive and an accident ensues. In another influential decision, he ruled in favor of consumers’ rights to reasonable insurance coverage. As a justice, he become known for upholding individual rights, from indigent patients denied emergency hospital care to cases of sexual harassment and employees’ rights.

Feldman recalls, “When I was on the Supreme Court, I wrote an opinion called Wagenseller. A nurse claimed she was fired because she refused to take down her clothes and moon her employer at a picnic. The case established the right of employees fired without just cause to sue.”

After his retirement from the court in 2002, Feldman returned to his law firm, now Haralson, Miller, Pitt, Feldman and McAnally, where, as the sole remaining founding member, he continues to work on civil litigation in cases of personal injury, product liability, insurance coverage, medical and legal malpractice, border issues and more.

“I’m proud of the results we get in this firm,” he says. “Wins in the right things — and even losses, in the right cause.” As an example of the latter, he mentions his pro bono work to get an initiative petition for raising sales tax to be used for education on the ballot. The initiative “got on the ballot, but was not passed.”

Before accepting any case, Feldman says, “I must believe in what I am going to have to argue to represent the person, and must believe in the fairness of the case.”

He takes pride in helping people who were badly injured obtain justice. Recently, he says, the firm was “successful in two cases with very significant damages, where the plaintiff was a terribly brain-injured person, who without that success would not have been destined for any reasonable kind of life.”

A member of Congregation Anshei Israel (whose kindergarten is named after his mother, Esther Feldman) since his bar mitzvah,  Feldman says he views his professional ethics as a reflection of  “common Judeo-Christian moral principles — helping others, truthfulness, fairness, respect, civility.”  No single person can heal the world, he points out: “People who think they alone can cure the world are very dangerous. We all need to have some humility and realize that we need to take the little steps that will hopefully be of some beneficial effect to our people and the country.”

Feldman serves on the boards of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, the Arizona Trial Lawyers Association and United Policyholders, a national consumer organization. He is a Fellow of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Arizona, and a member of the Pima County Bar Association. His daughter, Elizabeth, is also a lawyer, practicing in Arizona.

At 84, Feldman has no plans to retire anytime soon. During his long career he has accumulated countless awards and honors — among them the Judge Learned Hand Award for Public Service from the American Jewish Committee, the National Center for Victims of Crime Partners in Justice award, and the State Bar of Arizona Outstanding Jurist award. A University of Arizona law school courtroom was also named in his honor.

Protecting freedom and equality may be the responsibility of every citizen — but where’s the fulcrum that can create the greatest change? Feldman answers without hesitation. “The most important thing is voting rights.” He’s alarmed by what he describes as “the effort in some states to restrict the convenience of voting. In my view, people need to get together so these laws don’t pass — or we repeal these laws so everyone who wants to vote can vote.” He decries efforts to repeal the “motor voter” law, under which everyone who receives a driver’s license is registered to vote. “It’s a terrible thing to do,” says Feldman. “We need to fight all attempts to restrict the right to vote.”

Asked how he feels the country is faring today, he says, “I think we’ve made a lot of progress. We haven’t reached perfection; we need to keep from going backward on every front. I think the pendulum is starting to swing backward a little, and we have to stop that.”

Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.