Judicious Pollution Activist Becomes Judicial

Times Staff Writer

Some environmentalists try to make their case with emotional appeals. Some resort to angry rants.

But when Gail Ruderman Feuer rose to speak in court or before public officials, she was invariably low-key: a calm presence with an understated suit, a pleasant voice, an engaging smile.

It could take a few minutes to notice that this Harvard-trained environmental attorney was methodically laying out arguments that undercut those of some of California's most august industries. In that pleasant voice, she could cut through the bluster of an unprepared attorney or public official like a Henckels knife through butter.

In the last three years, she has helped expose environmental shortcomings in two massive projects at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and may have changed forever how the nation's two largest seaports deal with air pollution.

"She's clearly one of the brightest in the firmament of air pollution lawyers that are practicing in this country," said Mary Nichols, head of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and a nominee for the L.A. water and power board.

So allies and foes alike were stunned in late July when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named Feuer, 45, a Superior Court judge. Her colleagues joke that it was a victory for polluters, as one of the state's most effective environmental attorneys was silenced.

Feuer was sworn in Aug. 22 in the same courtroom where she successfully argued a lawsuit against the Port of Los Angeles. Her children draped the black robe over her shoulders. She began presiding over her own courtroom Thursday.

She has a simple explanation for why an attorney known for passionate activism would choose to leave the fray in mid-career for a new post requiring impartiality.

"I love fighting for causes I believe in, but not everyone can have an attorney to fight for them," she said. "I thought that if I could bring fairness and justice into the courtroom, I could make a difference one case at a time."

In a profession known for long hours, Feuer earned a reputation for working late and balancing an intense career with family.

Her cellphone always on, she would discuss environmental issues while she drove her son, Aaron, 14, to a science fair, or daughter Danielle, 11, to a soccer game.

"I can think of many occasions, we'll be discussing something related to air quality -- usually a very complicated, difficult subject -- and then she'll take a moment, turn and deal with a family matter and then we'll be back discussing a complicated subject," said Peter Greenwald, senior policy advisor for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which Feuer has both supported and opposed in court.

Feuer lives in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles with her husband, former Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer, and their children in a Spanish-style home they are renovating.

One recent Saturday morning, she tried to reflect on her life while nursing a mug of coffee on the side patio, a quiet enclave of plants and white latticework. But a contractor interrupted with questions. Then her husband asked her advice when the wrong locksmith arrived.

She grew up in Flushing, Queens. Her mother was a teacher; her father owned a rental car agency and a Dodge dealership. Feuer majored in economics at the Albany campus of the State University of New York, but her favorite class was nuclear physics. "I loved learning how to build a nuclear plant," she said with a slight grin.

She met her husband at Harvard Law School, and the two moved to Los Angeles, where she became a state deputy attorney general, serving in the environmental section.

In 1993, she became a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, becoming engrossed in some of the state's most important air pollution issues.

Diesel exhaust in particular caught her attention. The state had just declared it a toxic air contaminant because it can cause cancer. Soon, she was engaged in a landmark effort to reduce diesel fumes from trucks that serve the main distribution centers for the region's major supermarket chains. Most of those centers were in lower-income neighborhoods, putting residents at risk.

The campaign began with around-the-clock monitoring of diesel levels at the Vons distribution center in Santa Fe Springs. Todd Campbell, who was then with NRDC, recalled how Feuer would arrive after a day's work to stay overnight in a sleeping bag, watching an air monitor and communicating by walkie-talkie with others on the project.

"Here was this person who was revered in the environmental community, spending her extra hours with us," said Campbell, now at the Coalition for Clean Air. "I still remember getting e-mails at 2 or 3 in the morning. That was her signature. She's a dynamo."

With the monitoring data, Feuer and her colleagues sued the supermarket chains, which eventually agreed to start switching to cleaner-burning engines.

Feuer followed the same pattern of tenaciousness and compromise in her more recent battles, such as when she represented residents angered by the failure of the Port of Los Angeles to address escalating diesel emissions from ships, trains and trucks.

She persuaded an appellate court panel to halt construction on a port terminal planned for China Shipping until the port completed the required environmental review. Then, she and the port's attorneys reached a compromise, allowing construction to continue in return for the port's agreement to spend $50 million to control air pollution.

The landmark pact put Los Angeles in the forefront of efforts to reduce pollution when increased imports are stirring concerns in port cities nationwide.

Her opponents, many who hold her in high esteem, see her willingness to seek a middle ground as a trait that bodes well for her new career as a judge.

"She was someone you could go to and try to come up with a reasonable compromise," said Rick Zbur, a partner at Latham & Watkins, which has the largest environmental practice in the country and often represents businesses. "There are many folks out there on both sides of this that aren't willing to compromise, ever, and often that means that bad policy is made."



Barrister to bench

* Feuer earned a bachelor's degree summa cum laude in 1981 from SUNY Albany and a law degree cum laude in 1984 from Harvard Law School.

* While on a conference call in 1993, trying to negotiate a clean-air agreement, she went into labor with her daughter, Danielle.

* California Lawyer magazine named her one of the state's top 25 lawyers in 2000, noting her role in two precedent-setting legal settlements to improve air quality in the Los Angeles area.

* As a judge, Feuer is barred from discussing legal matters with former clients and the Natural Resources Defense Council. She has begun in traffic court and won't preside over an environmental case in the near future. "Not unless they hit a tree," she quipped.

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