Steven Donziger, the human rights lawyer who spent nearly three decades fighting Chevron on behalf of 30,000 people in the Ecuadorian rainforest, has been sentenced to six months in federal prison for “criminal contempt.” On October 1, in a lower Manhattan federal courtroom, Judge Loretta Preska justified imposing the maximum penalty by asserting that Donziger, now 60, had not shown contrition. She said, “It seems that only the proverbial two-by-four between the eyes will instill in him any respect for the law.”
In May, Preska had found Donziger guilty after a trial without a jury. And now Donziger, along with his family and scores of supporters, had to listen to the federal judge compare him to a mule who needed to be beaten with a piece of wood before complying.
Prior to sentencing, Donziger reminded the court in a polite and at times emotional statement that he had already spent 787 days under house arrest in his New York City apartment, a confinement that had put great pressure on his wife and teenage son. He explained that the court-imposed restrictions meant that his son had a father who was “unable to travel, leave his home except under narrow exceptions with court permission 48 hours in advance, unable to even go out for dinner, unable to have a father capable of doing all the things a father can do and should do with a child, including act with spontaneity.”
But even though Donziger was facing prison, he told the court he would not back down: “I have been attacked and demonized for years by Chevron in retaliation for helping Indigenous peoples in Ecuador try to do something to save their cultures, their lives, and our planet in the face of massive oil pollution. That’s the context for why we are here today.”
In response, Preska read out a prepared 50-minute statement for her harsh sentence. “Mr. Donziger spent the last seven plus years thumbing his nose at the US judicial system,” she said. “It’s now time to pay the piper.”
Donziger will not go to prison immediately. His attorneys will challenge the criminal contempt conviction, and they will also ask a higher court to put off his prison sentence pending that appeal. But Preska will keep him under house arrest, once again calling him a “flight risk.” In the past, she has warned that he “has ties to Ecuador,” insinuating that he would abandon his family and his New York City apartment to go live in the rain forest.
You can’t understand this latest injustice without looking back at Chevron’s long campaign against Donziger, who won a landmark pollution case against the oil giant in Ecuadorian courts in 2013. Chevron was ordered to spend $9.5 billion to clean up a contaminated area the size of Rhode Island, and to pay for the health care of the 30,000 plaintiffs whose communities have seen a rising number of cancer cases. Instead of following the legal order, Chevron launched a case in New York, and in 2014, a federal judge, Lewis Kaplan, found Donziger and some of his Ecuadorian allies civilly liable for racketeering, bribery, and fraud. Then, Kaplan asked the federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York to put Donziger on trial for “criminal contempt” connected to the original conviction. The federal prosecutor refused, so Kaplan handpicked an attorney from a private firm, Rita Glavin, to prosecute—a nearly unprecedented legal maneuver.
As Chevron’s vendetta continued, international outrage grew. Just before sentencing, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued an opinion in Donziger’s favor, ruling that his two years of house arrest was illegal under international law and that he had been denied the right to a fair trial. A panel of five prominent jurists called that confinement “arbitrary” and said that both judges, Kaplan and Preska, had shown “a staggering lack of objectivity and impartiality.” In court, Preska briefly acknowledged the UN findings only to dismiss them.
Once again, the mainstream media is largely ignoring Chevron’s campaign of retaliation against Donziger. The New York Times, Donziger’s hometown newspaper, reported nothing in the two days after the verdict, and has barely mentioned the case for the past seven years.
Back in 1993, Donziger, fresh out of Harvard Law School, joined an ongoing fight for environmental justice. The struggle against Texaco, which was taken over by Chevron in 2001, began in the late 1980s in eastern Ecuador, where the oil company drilled and operated wells from 1972 to 1992. Texaco had disposed of its drilling wastes by methods that in some cases would have been illegal in the United States. (More details are here.) Local people began organizing against the pollution in their rivers and streams and in oil-soaked stretches of their land. The case started in the New York federal courts, but then a judge ordered it sent back to Ecuador—a move that Chevron’s lawyers welcomed at the time. So, in 2003, the legal battle re opened in the eastern oil frontier town of Lago Agrio.
The case wound its way up through three levels of the Ecuadorian courts, and in the end, after Chevron exhausted all appeals, its guilt was confirmed. Meanwhile, though, its counterattack back in New York was underway. Chevron charged that Donziger and his allies had committed bribery and fraud in Ecuador to win their case, and it used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which had been designed to prosecute the Mafia. Donziger and the codefendants expected they would face a jury, but at the last minute, Chevron dropped its demand for financial damages. Under RICO law, this meant the defendants lost their right to a jury, and Kaplan alone would decide the case.
Donziger’s supporters objected to Kaplan’s pro-corporate statements and hostility toward the human rights lawyer during the RICO trial. Kaplan is a career corporate lawyer turned judge, with no experience in Ecuador or anywhere else in the Global South. Yet he decided which witnesses to believe and which to disregard—and in 2014 he found Donziger and the others guilty.
Only a corporation like Chevron worth billions could have financed such a prosecution. The oil giant paid for a disgraced former judge named Alberto Guerra and his family to move to the United States. Chevron’s lawyers rehearsed Guerra’s testimony with him 53 times before he went on the witness stand, where Guerra claimed that Donziger and an Ecuadorian lawyer had offered him a $500,000 bribe and that the pair had ghostwritten the final judgment against Chevron. Donziger and his defense team estimate that Chevron has spent $2 billion on legal fees and other costs. (Chevron’s designated spokesman, James Craig, declined to give the corporation’s own figure for how much it has spent on the case. Craig also declined to say if Chevron is still paying Guerra or if he is still living in the United States.)
Chevron’s attacks against Donziger did not stop after it won the racketeering verdict. The current contempt case began when the oil corporation petitioned Kaplan for access to Donziger’s personal computer and cell phone. Donziger declined, arguing that his electronic communications would give Chevron’s lawyers “backdoor access to everything we are planning, thinking, and doing.” He said he would wait until the US Court of Appeals heard his argument, and if it required him to, then he would hand over his electronics. Preska dismissed his defense and convicted him in May—again, without a jury.
It’s vital to recognize Chevron’s role in this legal persecution. Its attorneys show up at every Donziger legal case—even the ones that don’t directly involve the company. At the same time as Donziger was defending himself against the criminal contempt charge, he was also fighting the effort to take away his license to practice law in New York. The state bar association appointed a special officer named John Horan to preside over open hearings, and he found in Donziger’s favor. Horan, a former prosecutor, had harsh words for Chevron: “The extent of [Donziger’s] pursuit by Chevron is so extravagant, and at this point so unnecessary and punitive, [that] while not a factor in my recommendation, [it] is nonetheless background to it.”
Months later, a higher New York state court tossed out Horan’s finding and disbarred Donziger.
Putting Donziger in a federal prison for six months is more than vindictiveness. The $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron in Ecuador still stands, but the oil giant unloaded its assets there. That means the plaintiffs must collect in other countries where the corporation has holdings. Kaplan’s racketeering verdict specifically prohibited the Ecuadorians from forcing Chevron to pay the judgment in the United States. But there are promising possibilities in Canada and elsewhere. Donziger is forced to put those fights on hold while he tries to stay out of prison.
But there are signs that Chevron has gone too far, and that relentlessly pursuing a human rights lawyer is damaging its international reputation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is only the latest sign of concern and anger. Sixty-eight Nobel Laureates have shown their solidarity; another 475 lawyers and human rights defenders have signed a letter that calls his prosecution “one of the most important corporate accountability and human rights cases of our time.” Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said after the prison sentence that “it’s the executives at Chevron,” not Donziger, “who should be behind bars.”
What’s more, a movement to boycott Chevron is in the early stages. Big Oil is under scrutiny because of its role in the climate crisis, and divestment campaigns on college campuses and elsewhere are starting to have an impact. Large institutional investors may also start to pay attention. CalPERS, the giant retirement investment fund for California government employees, is headquartered in Chevron’s home state, and the teachers and municipal employees who contribute to it may ask why it holds $456 million of the oil giant’s stock.
Chevron must have hoped that its long retaliation campaign would force Donziger to abandon the fight for environmental justice—but it appears its aggressive strategy is backfiring.
After spending more than 700 days under house arrest, a human rights and environmental lawyer was found guilty last month of criminal contempt in a legal saga that has demonstrated the deep-rooted conflicts of interest layered throughout the judicial system when it comes to climate justice. In Steven Donziger’s conviction, the initial judge who referred him to trial, the second judge who was asked to lead the trial, and the private prosecutors who tried him all had deep ties to Chevron, the company Donziger had won a landmark multibillion-dollar ruling against.
The story began in 2011 when Donziger brought litigation against Texaco (now Chevron) in Ecuador for the harm it caused the Indigenous people in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where the fossil fuel company decided to deliberately discharge 16 billion gallons of toxic waste from its oil sites into rivers, groundwater, and farmland. A refusal from Chevron to adhere to environmental regulations—which earned the company an extra $5 billion over 20 years—led to more than 30,000 Ecuadorians being directly harmed by the oil giant’s actions, the judges in that case found. The case Donziger led made it all the way to the Ecuador Supreme Court, and successfully secured $9.5 billion in environmental damages for the Amazonian communities in a historic climate justice decision.ADVERTISEMENT
In a letter sent to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts at the end of last month, Sens. Ed Markey and Sheldon Whitehouse brought into question specifically the use of private prosecutors in the contempt case against Donziger. The three prosecutors that Kaplan appointed, Brian Maloney, Sareen Armani, and Rita Glavin (who is also Andrew Cuomo’s personal lawyer), were all at the time with the law firm Seward & Kissel. That firm had represented Chevron as recently as 2018. “These prosecutions,” the senators wrote, “are highly unusual and can raise concerning questions of fundamental fairness in our criminal justice system.”
Indeed, the apparent conflict of interest the private prosecution had is directly at odds with Supreme Court precedent. In the 1987 decision of Young v. United States ex rel. Vuitton et Fils, the Supreme Court ruled that, when it comes to private prosecutors pursuing criminal contempt cases, they “certainly should be as disinterested as a public prosecutor who undertakes such a prosecution.”ADVERTISEMENT
“Public confidence in the disinterested conduct” of the private prosecutor, the court warned, is essential to maintaining the integrity of the judicial system. That means that even the appearance of interest on the part of the private prosecutor can be considered a violation of Vuitton.
“Appearances are really functionally important for the rule of law, and for our judiciary,” said Guha Krishnamurthi, an associate professor of law at the University of Oklahoma. Krishnamurthi argues that one of the “biggest protections” of the criminal justice system is a disinterested prosecutor who can determine whether or not pursuing a case is to the benefit of the criminal justice system. The fact that a public prosecutor is accountable to the government and to the public, he says, reinforces this protection in a way that private prosecutors do not.
“I think it’s such a clear abuse that it violates the defendant’s constitutional right to due process. You can’t have someone who’s got a conflict of interest, who has personal reasons for wanting to see a person they’re prosecuting convicted,” said Louis Raveson, a professor of law at Rutgers Law School and the founder of the university’s Environmental Law Clinic. “That’s not an appropriate procedure, and, in my view, it’s not a constitutional procedure.”
“This is a perversion of justice, the whole idea that you can have a lawyer who previously worked for Chevron then prosecuting Donziger in the criminal case,” said Martin Garbus, Donziger’s attorney and a prominent veteran of human rights litigation. “It’s clear that it violates the law. … If you look at the body of law that deals with disinterest, people are disqualified for something far, far less than the involvement here.”
Raveson acknowledged that in certain instances, like police brutality cases or other times when the government is being asked to prosecute itself, private prosecutors can be truly beneficial. A private prosecutor there would likely be necessary in order to ensure disinterest and justice, as the public prosecutor works for the government. Often, though, they’re used in cases like Donziger’s, after a disinterested public prosecutor declines to pursue the charge and the judge decides to move forward anyway. “That’s all the more reason that judges need to err on the side of no possibility of a conflict,” Raveson said. Speaking of the Donziger case, he added, “It appears that a conflict is almost inevitable … and clearly that’s not by accident.”ADVERTISEMENT
When it comes to the decisions that could prevent one of the largest climate justice judgments of the past decade from taking effect, such appearances of conflict of interest are incredibly significant—and could be detrimental to future climate justice litigation.
“It’s scary going after a large corporation [and] it’s scary going after governments because they have so much power and so much influence that they can do a lot of damage to someone’s life,” Raveson said. “If the lawyers who bring [environmental justice cases like Donziger’s] are subject to biased determinations as to whether or not they should be punished … it’s going to have a deterrent effect on lawyers to bring these kinds of cases.”
Such a deterrence could have massive consequences for the climate, especially at a time when, as this week’s new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed, the world is barreling further toward climate catastrophe, a crisis that is driven in no small part by fossil fuel companies like Chevron. “It’s up to the judiciary to really ensure that that kind of chilling and deterrence … doesn’t happen,” Krishnamurthi added. “And the way you do that is by having more than just the formality of the rules, [but] having a true fidelity to conflicts of interest and disqualifying where necessary.”