By Tom Hals
NEW ORLEANS, (Reuters) - The judge overseeinghundreds of lawsuits spurred by BP Plc's Gulf of Mexico oilspill brought his much-noted calm, easy manner to the firstmajor hearing in what could be one of the most complex andcostly 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 casesinvolving shrimpers, restaurant owners, injured rig workers andothers seeking damage claims from BP, its Gulf oil wellpartners and other corporate defendants.
His message at the opening of Thursday's hearing -- thekick-off to an expected marathon of court dates in the comingyears -- was an emphasis on civility and maintaining mutualtrust among the parties. "It's never too early to settle," hereminded them.
"He is a very affable, very prepared judge who rarelyraises his voice and treats attorneys with respect and expectsthem to treat each other in a like fashion," said ScottBickford, a New Orleans lawyer representing the family of aworker killed in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion inApril.
Numerous defense lawyers involved in the spill casesdeclined to comment about Barbier, who was not the judge ofchoice 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 Barbierremoved from spill lawsuits because he owned bonds issued byTransocean Ltd, the operator of the ill-fated DeepwaterHorizon rig, and Halliburton Co, which cemented thedeep-sea well that ruptured. A federal appeals court ruled heshould stay on the cases.
From critical disputes such as the schedule for turningover evidence to seemingly minor issues such as a request totranslate court documents into Vietnamese, Barbier's firstinstinct at Thursday's hearing was to tell lawyers on all sidesto talk to each other.
Barbier, 66, worked briefly as an accountant and teacherbefore getting his law degree. He spent more than aquarter-century in private practice representing individualswith personal injury claims, particularly maritime cases.
He was nominated to the federal bench by President BillClinton in 1998. It was assumed at the time he would suffer thefate of many nominees who were blocked by Republicans as partof a campaign against liberal appointments.
However, he saved his nomination by employing his apparentweapon of choice -- discussion. After a private meeting withleading Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, Barbier sailedthrough confirmation.
As a judge, Barbier has issued opinions that have won thepraise of conservative organizations such as the National RifleAssociation as well as liberal advocates such as the AmericanCivil Liberties Union.
He has made headlines for dishing out longer sentences thanrequested by prosecutors in cases involving corrupt politicalinsiders who turned government witnesses.
"He's very well thought of and never been controversial,"said Ed Sherman, a professor at Tulane University Law School inNew Orleans. "I don't think he has a reputation for beingparticularly on the plaintiffs' side. He's a straightshooter."
Barbier did not immediately reply to a request for aninterview.
In the BP cases, the judge is overseeing an array of civillitigation filed in courts around the country and consolidatedby a federal judicial panel last month. Barbier will overseemuch of the initial work, such as gathering evidence andinterpreting legal statutes.
A past president of the Louisiana Trial LawyersAssociation, Barbier spoke out against proposals in the 1990sby then-Governor Mike Foster, who pushed to the limit theability of drivers in traffic accidents to sue for pain andsuffering.
Barbier handed the leadership role of the trial lawyersgroup to James Roy, who along with fellow Louisiana attorneySteve Herman is helping direct the plaintiffs' case.
"He's a very modest judge in his demeanor and in hisjudicial philosophy," said Roy. "He treats both sides withequal attentiveness and respect."
Bickford, the lawyer representing the family of a workerkilled in the rig explosion, recalled an incident when Barbieronce spied him using his cell phone in his courtroom. Somejudges are known to get enraged and clear the court whenlawyers use mobile devices against their wishes, but Bickfordsaid Barbier dealt with the infraction in his own subtle way.
"I was in his courtroom texting on my phone when he glancedover and caught me typing away," Bickford said. "We made eyecontact, at which point, true to his style, he calmly liftedhis own phone, interrupting the lawyer arguing, and stated thathe 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 VonAhn)