The U.S. Supreme Court left in place the conviction of attorney Steven Donziger — a longtime enemy of Chevron Corp. – which sought to challenge the appointment of private lawyers to pursue contempt of court.
In the 1990s, Donziger represented thousands of farmers and indigenous people who he said suffered from environmental and health problems caused by oil drilling in Ecuador. An Ecuadorian court awarded the plaintiffs $9.5 billion in damages. Chevron then withdrew its assets from Ecuador and fought Donziger in the United States, arguing that he obtained the Ecuadorian judgment through bribery and fraud.
After Donziger refused to provide information about his electronic devices, he was charged with contempt of court. The case had been referred to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who declined to prosecute due to resource constraints. The judge then appointed three private lawyers as special prosecutors.
Donziger offered to dismiss the charges on the theory that the court’s appointment of special prosecutors violated the appointment clause of the Constitution. Furthermore, he claimed that the lawyers had not been sufficiently supervised by the Department of Justice to satisfy the separation of powers.
“The appointment clause,” argued Steve Vladeck, a lawyer for Donziger, requires “that officers be subject to the supervision and direction of a senior officer.” Vladeck is also a legal analyst for CNN.
The Justice Department responded in court papers that “even a court-appointed special prosecutor remains subject to the direction and control of the attorney general.”
Judges Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh said they would have allowed Donziger’s appeal.
In disagreement, Gorsuch, joined by Kavanaugh, wrote that “although the district court may have thought that Mr. Donziger deserved punishment”, the prosecution “broke a fundamental constitutional promise essential to our freedom”.
“In this country, judges have no more power to prosecute those who come before them than prosecutors have to try those they indict,” Gorsuch wrote.
This story has been updated with additional details.