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Unlike some of his silver-spooned colleagues on the bench, who went to Harvard Law School and joined restricted country clubs, Feldman's beginnings were humble. He was born in New York City during the Depression. His father ran a grocery store and later had another business manufacturing bleach. His mother had one of the few jobs in her family, modeling fur coats. Feldman doesn't recall much of life in the Bronx; his parents moved to Tucson when he was 4 or 5, because his mother had respiratory problems.
Patience Huntwork, chief staff attorney for the Arizona Supreme Court, worked with Feldman throughout his tenure as a justice and knows him well. She says his early background clearly shaped his actions on the court.
"I get the idea that his parents had to make a life for themselves with no support system," she says. "They made a life for themselves and they probably did very well, but that experience with being totally self-reliant gave him a sympathy that many other jurists do not have experience with: what the average person experiences."
Feldman's father, who had been quite religious in New York, had to adapt to life in Tucson, where the Jewish community was tiny and it was impossible to keep kosher. The senior Feldmans, both Depression-era Democrats, were interested in politics but not active.
Their son, who was 6'2" by junior high, wanted to be a professional basketball player. The closest he ever got was season-ticket floor seats to the Phoenix Suns. (His law partner, Don Pitt, helped create the team.) Feldman is blunt about his own lack of talent on the basketball court, and equally blunt about his early ambivalence toward a profession. He considered teaching history, but stumbled into law school, ultimately graduating from the University of Arizona in the mid-1950s.
There were few missteps, once he discovered the law.
"From the first day, I loved it," Feldman says of law school. "I just loved the whole process, the reasoning, the cases. Just interesting, fascinating. I found it more intellectually stimulating than anything I'd ever done."
But while Feldman graduated with the highest honors, he couldn't get a job.
"The market for Jewish lawyers, Hispanic lawyers, women lawyers . . . or any minority of any kind was, shall we say, extremely limited," he recalls. "I couldn't get an interview. I was first in the class. Usually the guy who's first in the class gets an interview."
And so Feldman opened an office by himself in an old converted warehouse in downtown Tucson. He calls it the luckiest thing he's ever done. Coincidentally, two other attorneys, brothers Morris and Stewart Udall, had an office in an old house across the street. The Udalls would both go on to greater fame, one as a congressman, the other as Secretary of the Interior, but they got their start as garden-variety lawyers. "You could come to Morris with almost any kind of matter or case and he would represent you," Feldman says.
Mo Udall became Feldman's informal mentor, offering him cases and letting him tag along to watch him in court.
Soon, you could come to Feldman with almost any kind of case and he would represent you.
"If you had five dollars, you could be a client. If you didn't have five dollars, then I had time," he says.
Feldman took cases dealing with fraud, personal injury and contracts. He represented Don Diamond, the Tucson real estate mogul, before Diamond made it big. But most of his clients were along the lines of the Navajo miners who contracted lung cancer on the job. Eventually, Feldman earned a reputation in town as the guy who would take the most unusual cases.
In one of his most interesting tasks, Feldman represented servicemen who found out decades after the fact that the government had been secretly giving them high doses of LSD, as an experiment. Some of the men had been having inexplicable psychotic episodes for 20 years.
The government admitted to the experiments, Feldman recalls, and the defense was that it was a "discretionary decision" and thus legitimate.
Feldman argued that "there was no one in the United States government who had discretion to do this to a United States serviceman."
By the mid-1960s, Feldman found law partners, creating a firm with Don Pitt and Bob Miller. He worked on John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign and raised money for Mo Udall's presidential bid, and became active in Bar politics, first as Pima County Bar president and then president of the Arizona State Bar.
In the early 1980s, Arizona Governor Raul Castro was made ambassador to Argentina, Secretary of State Wesley Bolin died and Attorney General Bruce Babbitt became governor. A seat opened on the Arizona Supreme Court, and friends urged Feldman to apply.
Feldman was the second Supreme Court justice named under the state's new merit selection system. The Commission on Appellate Court Appointments sent three names to the governor. At the time, the commission meetings were secret – something Feldman would later change – but when the list emerged, Feldman was the only Democrat on it. He figured he had the job. He was right.