Supreme Court rejects appeal by lawyer who sued Chevron
The Supreme Court on Monday refused to consider the appeal of a disbarred attorney jailed for contempt of court after winning a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron in an environmental trial in Ecuador.
The lawyer, Steven Donziger, was sentenced to six months in prison for failing to comply with a judge’s order to hand over all of his electronic devices.
He had asked the Supreme Court to take up the case, arguing that a federal district court judge exceeded his legal authority by appointing three attorneys as special prosecutors to handle his contempt trial after the US Attorney in Manhattan refused to prosecute him.
Two conservative justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, disagreed with the ruling, saying they would uphold Donziger’s appeal to the Supreme Court,
Gorsuch, in his blunt written dissent, suggested that the judge’s appointment of special prosecutors violated the separation of powers of the branches of government, which gives the executive the power to initiate criminal prosecutions and the judiciary the power to interpret the laws. .
“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.
“Our Constitution does not condone what happened here,” he added.
The other judges who voted to deny Donziger a hearing of his appeal did not explain their decision in writing, as is customary.
The case stems from a lawsuit alleging decades of pollution of rainforests and rivers in South America’s Amazon region by Texaco, a predecessor of Chevron.
A group of Ecuadorians represented by Donziger filed a class action lawsuit against Chevron in Manhattan federal court in 1993.
“At the company’s insistence, the court transferred the dispute to Ecuador,” Gorsuch wrote in his five-page dissent.
“Later, Chevron came to regret that decision,” Gorsuch noted.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit were awarded $9.5 billion from Chevron by an Ecuadorian judge.
Chevron then sued in federal court in Manhattan and obtained an injunction against enforcement of the judgment in any US court.
The company also obtained a so-called constructive trust over all assets Donziger had received as a result of the judgment in Ecuador.
Manhattan federal judge Lewis Kaplan, in a nearly 500-page ruling in 2014, wrote that Donziger and Ecuadorian lawyers had “corrupted” the lawsuit in Ecuador.
Kaplan said the lawyers had, among other things, submitted fraudulent evidence, coerced a judge to bring in a supposedly impartial expert whose report was written by a Colorado consulting firm paid for by Donziger, then promised 500,000 dollars” to the Ecuadorian judge to rule in their favor and sign their judgment.
To enforce the hold Kaplan had placed on assets received by Donziger as part of the judgment in Ecuador, he ordered Donziger to turn over all of his electronic devices so that they could be imaged.
After Donziger failed to fully comply with that order, Kaplan held him in contempt of court and referred that case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which normally prosecutes such cases.
However, the US Attorney in Manhattan declined to take the case.
Kaplan then appointed three attorneys as special prosecutors and held a non-jury trial for Donziger, whom he later convicted and sentenced to prison.
Donziger had objected to Kaplan’s actions, arguing that a judge had no right to override a federal prosecutor’s discretion in deciding not to pursue a case.
But the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld his conviction.
In his dissent Monday, Justice Gorsuch noted that in the late 1980s the Supreme Court “approved the use of court-appointed prosecutors as a ‘last resort’ in certain criminal contempt cases.”
“But this decision drew a lot of criticism,” Gorsuch added. “As the members of this Court have said, the Constitution gives the courts the power to ‘serve as a neutral arbiter in a criminal case’ and not ‘the power to prosecute crimes’.”
In the Chevron case, Gorsuch wrote, “Even though the district court may have thought that Mr. Donziger deserved punishment, the prosecution in this case broke a fundamental constitutional promise essential to our