Nov 29, 2021 - Energy & Environment

9 Democrats urge DOJ to free lawyer who won lawsuit against Chevron

Photo of Steven Donziger's face next to a giant "Free Donziger" sign

Steven Donziger at a rally to protest his imprisonment outside the Manhattan courthouse ahead of his sentencing in New York City in October. Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and seven other House Democrats are urging the Justice Department to release American environmental lawyer Steven Donziger, who helped Indigenous communities in Ecuador win a $9.5 billion lawsuit against Chevron.

Why it matters: Human rights groups say the charges against Donziger, who is serving a six-month prison term for contempt of court, violate international law and appear to be an act of retaliation against his work on behalf of Indigenous people and environmental advocates.

Catch up quick: Donziger spent decades suing Chevron for allegedly damaging the environment, especially the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, and harming Indigenous tribespeople, according to the New York Times.

  • Chevron denied responsibility, but an Ecuadorean court awarded Donziger's clients $18 billion. This was later reduced to $9.5 billion in damages in 2001.
  • The energy corporation refused to pay the fines and filed a suit against Donziger, claiming he used illegal tactics like bribery to win the case.
  • U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan did not dispute the pollution in the Amazon, but ruled that Donziger's team used fraudulent evidence and engaged in criminal conduct.

When Chevron brought another case against Donziger in 2018, Kaplan agreed with its demand for Donziger to turn over his computer and other electronics. Donziger refused, citing confidential attorney-client communications.

  • In 2019, the judge brought in a private law firm to prosecute Donziger for criminal contempt of court.
  • After a trial presided under another district court judge, he was found guilty and disbarred, the Guardian reports.

What they're saying: In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Galand, the Congress members cited an opinion by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), which found that his trial and the judges involved failed international fair trial standards.

  • "The Biden administration must send a clear signal that it stands with communities harmed by pollution and environmental destruction and the lawyers courageous enough to represent them and not the corporations that benefit from polluting the water, air, and land of local people," the lawmakers wrote.
  • "Extractive industries everywhere are watching this story to see if Chevron has just completed their proof of concept," they added.
"The DOJ must intervene in this case to show polluting companies that the Chevron model for avoiding responsibility for environmental catastrophe will not be tolerated by our justice system."
ā€” Excerpt from letter

The other side: The DOJ submitted a friend-of-the-court filing earlier this month arguing that Donziger's appeal against his contempt conviction should be rejected.

  • Lawyers for the DOJ said his "argument that his prosecution by private attorneys violated the U.S. Constitution's appointments clause" was wrong, Reuters notes.
  • Representatives for the DOJ and Chevron did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment.
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