Environmental Law

Imprisoned, disbarred lawyer who fought Chevron has been turned into an 'environmental martyr'

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Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California. Photo by Todd A. Merport/Shutterstock.

Imprisoned, disbarred environmental lawyer Steven Donziger has become a cause celebre as he fights a six-month sentence for refusing to surrender his electronic devices in a lawsuit against him by the Chevron Corp.

The Chevron Corp. went on the offensive after Donziger obtained a $9.5 billion judgment against the company for environmental pollution in Ecuador, the New York Times reports in a DealBook column.

The Chevron Corp. obtained outtakes from a documentary and relied on a witness, who said Donziger’s legal team had bribed a judge. Then the Chevron Corp. sued Donziger for RICO violations.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan of the Southern District of New York blocked enforcement of the judgment in 2014 and awarded Chevron $800,000 on its RICO claim. Kaplan cited evidence that the Ecuadorian judgment was ghostwritten, and the Ecuadorian judge was offered $500,000 to sign it. The decision was upheld on appeal.

But the case didn’t end there, according to the New York Times’ DealBook column.

Chevron claimed that Donziger was stonewalling efforts to collect the judgment and was disobeying discovery orders to turn over his electronic devices. The judge appointed a special prosecutor, and Donziger was found guilty of criminal contempt in July.

“Along the way, something surprising has happened,” the New York Times reported in the DealBook column. “Outside the courtroom, it was as if the ghostwritten report and the alleged bribe of the Ecuadorian judge had never happened. Mr. Donziger’s victory in Ecuador was praised as legitimate, and he was widely viewed by progressives as an environmental hero.

“Sting, the musician, helped raise money for his defense. Greta Thunberg offered her support. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and several of her Democratic colleagues sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking him to review the case. The Harvard Law professor Charles Nesson rallied to his cause. Campaigns have been started to #FREEDONZIGER.”

The article questioned the support, arguing that Donziger’s allies’ “hatred of Big Oil has blinded them to some of Mr. Donziger’s inconvenient actions.”

But the article also questioned whether Chevron went too far in its pursuit of the environmental lawyer.

Donziger “has been turned into an environmental martyr, which is the last thing Chevron should want,” the article said. “He’s no longer the lawyer who broke the rules to win a case. Instead, he’s the lawyer who stood up to Big Oil.”

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “In closing brief, disbarred environmental lawyer claims his prosecution is ‘run by an oil company’”

ABAJournal.com: “Disbarred lawyer who fought Chevron gets prison time for disobeying court orders”

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