Hard to Pigeonhole
‘Troopergate’ brought more drama than Jeffrey M. Feldman expected
Published in 2009 Alaska Super Lawyers magazine
By Amanda Coyne on September 1, 2009
Until Sen. John McCain chose his vice presidential candidate last year, the probe into then-Gov. Sarah Palin’s firing of Alaska’s public safety commissioner seemed like a small investigation by a state legislature.
Jeffrey Feldman just wanted to make sure his client, Walter Monegan—the terminated commissioner—was protected during the process. But in August 2008, “Troopergate” ended up in living rooms across the country. Feldman was in the thick of things—a natural place for him to be. Mention Feldman’s name in a group of Alaska lawyers and you’re likely to hear words like “respected” and “smart.” Former state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz adds one that a casual conversation with the unassuming Feldman might not suggest: “formidable.”
“He isn’t showy,” acknowledges Berkowitz, “but he strikes fear in his opponents. He’s the Swiss Army knife of Alaska lawyers.”
Alaska draws its share of big characters with big personalities. Its legal establishment can be particularly, well, Alaskan. Feldman, a trial and appellate attorney with Feldman Orlansky & Sanders in Anchorage, prefers the understated. “I don’t kill things. I don’t fly an airplane,” he says. “To tell you the truth, I’d much rather sit by a stream and read a book or paint with watercolors. I’m definitely not a Jack London kind of guy.”
When Feldman, a Rhode Island native, came to Alaska with a fresh law degree from Northeastern University in Boston, he got the chance to explore uncharted legal territory in a state only 16 years old. “I was able to read every Alaska Supreme Court decision,” he says. “I’m sure there was no other place in the country where a young lawyer could do that.”
What keeps him excited is the range of cases. Feldman has represented some of the world’s biggest corporate clients, such as oil company BP, DaimlerChrysler, and pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma. But he also takes cases off the street. Clients have ranged from accused murderers to public-interest groups. He also uses his abilities as a lawyer to assist Democratic politicians and progressive causes.
Feldman is all over the map. “I’m not sure if that’s because I’m thoroughly undisciplined when it comes to taking cases,” he says, “or whether my interests are fairly eclectic. I don’t think doctors should make decisions on what patients they want to treat based on certain criteria, and neither should lawyers.”
The firm’s pro bono work is equally assorted and has won recognition over the years. Feldman decided he wanted to help inmates awaiting death sentences.
“It dawned on me that, if I were a doctor and I saw someone knocked down on the street, I’d go over and try to save that person’s life without thinking if that’s something I should be doing,” he says. “It seemed to me that, as a lawyer, accepting a death-row case was the equivalent.”
But in 2003, Feldman couldn’t take on such an appeal because he was in the middle of an intense trial in which fishing processors, including his client Trident Seafoods, had been accused by fishermen of price-fixing.
After that lengthy (and successful) trial ended, the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project hooked him up with Elroy Chester from Texas, convicted in the murder of an off-duty firefighter in Beaumont, Texas. Feldman is arguing that Chester is mentally retarded and thus exempt from the death penalty.
For sheer drama, Troopergate brought more than its share into Feldman’s life. A bipartisan legislative investigation found that Palin had abused her power by firing Monegan after he refused to terminate a state trooper divorced from Palin’s sister. But after the scandal escalated, another probe—requested by the personnel board, which was appointed by Palin—found no wrongdoing. Feldman says he is no judge, but he believes there was “substantial evidence” for the first finding. Probably no other case will prompt an offer to fly himself, his client and their spouses to New York for an appearance on NBC’s Today show.
Still, of the thousands of clients he’s had, Chester is the one he’s lost sleep over.
“There’s a guy in Texas who will die if we can’t figure out a way to make it right,” he says.
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