Fossil fuel giant Chevron vows to “demonize” victorious human rights lawyer
For several years now, human rights attorney Steven Donziger has been in the fight of his life and career after Chevron vowed to destroy him for winning a $9.5 billion judgment for indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon that had been poisoned by the company’s oil drilling. From buying off judges and experts in Ecuador to filing trumped up racketeering charges in the U.S. and getting the inappropriately sympathetic federal judge Kaplan to demand that Mr. Donziger turn over his laptop, cell phone, and attorney-client communications with his extremely vulnerable indigenous clients, Chevron will stop at nothing to evade being held for the life-threatening harm it has caused to tens of thousands of people in the Amazon.
Even though the judgement against Chevron was issued in 2001, to this day the company had not paid a dime of the money that three international courts have affirmed it owes to indigenous Ecuadorian communities. Instead, it has used at least 60 law firms and 2,000 lawyers and spent an estimated $2 billion to obstruct the case and try to discredit the lawyer who played a major role in this historic victory. In a move apparently unprecedented in U.S. history, Mr. Donziger was charged criminally by Judge Kaplan (a former tobacco industry defense lawyer) for trying to protect his confidential case file from being turned over to Chevron. Kaplan then appointed Judge Preska to follow his lead and put Mr. Donziger under house arrest while he awaits what looks like a rigged trial and where he will be denied a jury of impartial fact finders. Judge Kaplan has circumvented the U.S. Attorney office’s refusal to file the criminal charges, which has resulted in Mr. Donziger’s criminal prosecution by a private law firm (Seward and Kissel) that has extensive ties to the oil and gas industry, and as late as 2018, had Chevron as a client. For months, the firm refused to turn over any documentation regarding how much, or from whom, payment it is receiving to prosecute Donziger. However, recent documents show that U.S. citizens have now paid this private firm more than $270,000 for the unwarranted prosecution of Mr. Donziger thus far.
The results of this abusive and unprecedented corporate and judicial beat-down are shocking, albeit predictable. On August 6th, Mr. Donziger will have spent a year on pre-trial house arrest on a misdemeanor criminal contempt charge that carries a maximum six-month jail sentence. He had to post an $800,000 bond – higher than that of three of the four ex-officers who killed George Floyd – and he is forced to wear a GPS location monitoring ankle bracelet 24-7. All because he refused on ethical and legal grounds to turn over his confidential case file to Chevron, which not only would have been a violation of his Constitutional rights but would also have put the lives of his clients in danger. Apparently, winning a $9.5 billion judgement against Chevron for environmental crimes against humanity is more of a risk to the community than murder.
Furthermore, the disparities between Mr. Donziger’s case and any other contempt case in the United States against a lawyer are staggering. The longest sentence any lawyer in New York has ever received after being convicted of contempt was three months of home confinement – and no lawyer charged with contempt in U.S. history has ever been held pre-trial. Chevron also succeeded in orchestrating the suspension of Mr. Donziger’s bar license without a hearing based on fabricated evidence presented by a paid witness, preventing him from continuing his critical legal work to bring justice for his indigenous clients. Such draconian pre-trial actions are, in our experience, unprecedented. Yet, this miscarriage of justice has gone largely unnoticed in the mainstream media.
Why is this case so important to CLDC?
As an environmental and civil rights attorney who has focused much of my career on protecting our right to dissent, I find the extreme lengths to which Chevron and Judge Kaplan have gone to silence Mr. Donziger and deter other potential litigants and lawyers extremely alarming. In reality, this is a chilling new legal frontier in which the government (via Judge Kaplan) has turned over the prosecutorial role to a private corporation to silence its main critic.
CLDC has long been an effective foil to corporate SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation) designed to harass and silence critics. This case is a clear example of what happens next when these disingenuous legal ploys are allowed to proceed with full force. Martin Niemoller got it right: If we don’t stand up for Steven Donziger, the Ecuadorians’ chosen champion for environmental justice, then the multi-billion dollar fossil fuel industry scores a major win, and ‘we the people’ severely lose. And so, in May of this year I joined Mr. Donziger’s legal defense team as one of the lead trial attorneys in order to put this corporate and judicial abuse to rest. We simply cannot stand by and let corporate bullies and their judicial allies destroy those who seek to hold polluters accountable for their crimes and other misconduct.
CLDC is representing Mr. Donziger at trial, and we are also calling on the U.S. Court of Appeals to dismiss this bogus case with prejudice. You can read more about the case, and why everyone should care about it, below. We will continue to mobilize members of the legal profession and activists to decry the use of the federal court system to suppress dissenting voices.
Why you should care: An attack on one is an attack on all
This case is clearly part of a larger intimidation campaign being laundered through the U.S. court system. Chevron feels it must destroy Mr. Donziger so that no other lawyer or litigant will ever dare to sue them and their industry – and win – again. Public interest lawyers like Mr. Donziger are a rare breed – they work for decades on critically important cases without getting paid because their clients have little or no money even though their claims involve life or death issues of human rights and environmental justice. Winning these David v. Goliath battles can bring monetary damages and cost recovery, but that’s not why they do it.
More and more, we see the fossil fuel industry desperately reaching into its grab bag of dirty tricks to drain the last drops of profit from the despoliation of the planet. Trying to take out the few lawyers who dare to sue them, and who know how to do it successfully, is a good money-making strategy for the industry. If they can take out those public interest lawyers or discourage them from taking on these big cases, then they can get rid of most of those pesky lawsuits holding them accountable for the death and destruction they cause. In the meantime, the climate crisis continues unabated partly because our legal system has become frighteningly dysfunctional with far too many judges ideologically committed to protecting corporate power from challenges by human rights victims.
CLDC is representing Mr. Donziger at trial scheduled for September 9th in Manhattan, NY. However, this trial should not even be happening. We and other members of Donziger’s team – including legendary civil rights lawyer Martin Garbus, Richard Friedman and Zoe Littletree – are also calling on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss this bogus case with prejudice.
If fighting for justice in cases like this matter to you (and it should), we would welcome your contributions to support it. You can make a donation HERE. Please make sure to include a note that this is for Mr. Donziger’s defense so that we can appropriately restrict the funds.