Steven Donziger, the lawyer who won a multibillion-dollar case against Chevron over pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon and then faced unrelenting legal attacks from the oil company, has been found guilty of criminal contempt. The attorney, who has been on house arrest for two years, now faces up to six months in jail. It’s the latest in a long David-and-Goliath-style saga that has included some of the grossest conflicts of interest ever seen in U.S. courtrooms.
Donziger led a case against the energy giant Chevron on behalf of 30,000 Indigenous residents and peasant farmers in the Amazon. The firm’s pollution, which leached into local soil and drinking water and has been linked to increased rates of cancer and birth defects, left a legacy so toxic that it’s been compared with Chernobyl. (The original polluter was Texaco, which Chevron bought in 2000.)
In 2013, he secured a $US9.5 ($13) billion judgment in the case held in Ecuador — the largest human rights and environmental court judgment in history. But the following year, a U.S. court ruled that the judgment was unenforceable because it was obtained by fraud and racketeering activity. The verdict, handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Preska on Monday, stemmed from the 2014 case. Donziger had been charged with six misdemeanour criminal contempt charges, including refusing to obey court orders by turning over over his laptop and cell phone as evidence in the racketeering suit. (He has maintained that doing so would violate his legal clients’ privacy.)
In a 245-page ruling, Preska found him guilty of all six counts of contempt. No sentencing date has yet been set, but he could be forced to serve six months or pay a fine of up to $US5,000 ($6,774).
“It’s time to pay the piper,” Preska wrote in the judgment.
While the outcome is terrible news for Donziger, it’s one he was expecting. “This trial had already been decided and the purpose of the proceeding was to try to glom on a veneer of due process over a decision that I think was made behind closed doors by judges,” he told me in May.
He noted that the charges against him were brought not by the public court system, but by private prosecutors — a first for the American judiciary. The private lawyers were led by Rita Glavin, who at the time of her appointment was a partner at the law firm Seward & Kissel. In April 2020, Seward & Kissel admitted that it had represented Chevron as a client as recently as 2018 — a major conflict of interest that Donziger’s lawyers had long suspected.
The glaring conflicts don’t stop there, though. Preska, who convicted Donziger and also placed him on house arrest back in 2019, wasn’t randomly assigned to oversee the case as is typical. Instead, she was handpicked for the role by Judge Lewis Kaplan, who presided over a 2012 RICO case against Donziger in an unprecedented and highly shady process. Preska serves as an advisor to the pro-business Federalist Society, to which Chevron has donated massive sums.
“Preska’s decision is the result of a patently unfair trial process that she and Judge Kaplan structured to undermine my defence and to make me appear guilty,” Donziger wrote in a statement.
Donziger’s legal team plans to contest the decision and believe the court’s obvious biases could help them to handily win their appeal.
“We have a strong appeal and I look forward to the opportunity to brief the appellate court on this obvious travesty of justice,” Donziger wrote. “I also repeat my call for Judge Preska to release me immediately so I can return to my human rights work and help those in Ecuador who are suffering and dying because of Chevron’s dumping of billions of gallons of cancer-causing toxic waste into the Amazon.”