The judge overseeing hundreds of lawsuits spurred by BP Plc’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill brought his much-noted calm, easy manner to the first major hearing in what could be one of the most complex and costly court fights in U.S. history.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, a New Orleans native, will wield huge power over the direction of the legal cases involving shrimpers, restaurant owners, injured rig workers and others seeking damage claims from BP, its Gulf oil well partners and other corporate defendants.
His message at the opening of Thursday’s hearing — the kick-off to an expected marathon of court dates in the coming years — was an emphasis on civility and maintaining mutual trust among the parties. “It’s never too early to settle,” he reminded them.
“He is a very affable, very prepared judge who rarely raises his voice and treats attorneys with respect and expects them to treat each other in a like fashion,” said Scott Bickford, a New Orleans lawyer representing the family of a worker killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in April.
Numerous defense lawyers involved in the spill cases declined to comment about Barbier, who was not the judge of choice for BP or its co-defendants.
Besides arguing that the cases should be heard in BP’s U.S. headquarters city of Houston, the oil company wanted Barbier removed from spill lawsuits because he owned bonds issued by Transocean Ltd, the operator of the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig, and Halliburton Co., which cemented the deep-sea well that ruptured. A federal appeals court ruled he should stay on the cases.
From critical disputes such as the schedule for turning over evidence to seemingly minor issues such as a request to translate court documents into Vietnamese, Barbier’s first instinct at Thursday’s hearing was to tell lawyers on all sides to talk to each other.
Barbier, 66, worked briefly as an accountant and teacher before getting his law degree. He spent more than a quarter-century in private practice representing individuals with personal injury claims, particularly maritime cases.
He was nominated to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1998. It was assumed at the time he would suffer the fate of many nominees who were blocked by Republicans as part of a campaign against liberal appointments.
However, he saved his nomination by employing his apparent weapon of choice — discussion. After a private meeting with leading Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, Barbier sailed through confirmation.
As a judge, Barbier has issued opinions that have won the praise of conservative organizations such as the National Rifle Association as well as liberal advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
He has made headlines for dishing out longer sentences than requested by prosecutors in cases involving corrupt political insiders who turned government witnesses.
“He’s very well thought of and never been controversial,” said Ed Sherman, a professor at Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. “I don’t think he has a reputation for being particularly on the plaintiffs’ side. He’s a straight shooter.”
Barbier did not immediately reply to a request for an interview.
In the BP cases, the judge is overseeing an array of civil litigation filed in courts around the country and consolidated by a federal judicial panel last month. Barbier will oversee much of the initial work, such as gathering evidence and interpreting legal statutes.
A past president of the Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association, Barbier spoke out against proposals in the 1990s by then-Governor Mike Foster, who pushed to the limit the ability of drivers in traffic accidents to sue for pain and suffering.
Barbier handed the leadership role of the trial lawyers group to James Roy, who along with fellow Louisiana attorney Steve Herman is helping direct the plaintiffs’ case.
“He’s a very modest judge in his demeanor and in his judicial philosophy,” said Roy. “He treats both sides with equal attentiveness and respect.”
Bickford, the lawyer representing the family of a worker killed in the rig explosion, recalled an incident when Barbier once spied him using his cell phone in his courtroom. Some judges are known to get enraged and clear the court when lawyers use mobile devices against their wishes, but Bickford said Barbier dealt with the infraction in his own subtle way.
“I was in his courtroom texting on my phone when he glanced over and caught me typing away,” Bickford said. “We made eye contact, at which point, true to his style, he calmly lifted his own phone, interrupting the lawyer arguing, and stated that he had forgot to turn it off and was violating his own rules.
“Needless to say, I don’t text there anymore.”
(Reporting by Tom Hals; Editing by Martha Graybow and Lisa Von Ahn)
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