Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Judge Kaplan Denies Jury Trial for Donziger and Ecuadorians

Reposted from The Chevron Pit

Today, the New York Law Journal ran an article on its front page about the upcoming trial in Chevron's retaliatory RICO lawsuit against the victims of Chevron's abuses in the Ecuadorean Amazon, and their long-time U.S. attorney, Steven Donziger. The piece begins:

The pitched battle between Chevron Corporation and a lawyer and Ecuadorians who won a multi-billion-dollar environmental judgment against the oil company in Ecuador is set for trial on Oct. 15, before Southern District Judge Lewis Kaplan.

Reporter Mark Hamblett opens with the competing narratives – Chevron on one side, human rights attorney Donziger and the Ecuadoreans on the other – in this case:

Kaplan Monday denied the request of attorney Steven Donziger and two of his Ecuadorian clients for a jury trial in the case, where Chevron is alleging Donziger ran a racketeering conspiracy to win the so-called Lago Agrio litigation in Ecuador by fraud, and Donziger is accusing Chevron of scorched-earth tactics to avoid taking financial responsibility for environmental damage left behind by a predecessor oil company.

As the trial evidence mounted in Ecuador over Chevron's devastation of a sprawling swath of inhabited Amazon rainforest, it became increasingly clear that Chevron would likely be found liable. On that, the company was right, and in February 2011, the oil giant was ordered to pay nearly $19 billion in compensatory and punitive damages.

But by then Chevron had launched its retaliatory campaign against Donziger and the Ecuadoreans. In 2009, with an adverse judgment from the Ecuadorian court looming, Chevron press operative Chris Gidez wrote in an internal company memo that "our L-T [long-term] strategy is to demonize Donziger."

Today's NY Law Journal article continues:

After Chevron filed its lawsuit, Donziger said, "It then used 'the explosive' 'thermonuclear' impact of the allegations – the 'terrorizing' effect of civil RICO 'as another court has described it' – to launch a global smear campaign designed to destroy my reputation, chill my free speech rights, and drive me away from representing the Ecuadorian communities who are my clients. This campaign was promoted, encouraged and amplified by the very court that Chevron now seeks to preside over a bench trial."

In addition to "fundamental fairness" requiring a jury trial, Donziger said, "Chevron has accused me of being a 'criminal' in open court," and "it would amount to a travesty of justice to deny me and my clients a jury trial in what is essentially a private prosecution funded by corporate largesse."

Legal Newsline covered the development today as well, quoting Donziger spokesman Chris Gowen, who called Kaplan's decision "a clear abuse of power" and said that it shows Chevron doesn't believe in its own case:

"This critical decision made only days before trial virtually guarantees Chevron its desired outcome from a judge who already has decided all key issues in the case before evidence has been presented," Gowen said in a statement.

While Judge Kaplan – who famed trial attorney John Keker charges with allowing Chevron's RICO case to degenerate into a "Dickensian farce" – remains intent on being the sole decider, Donziger and the Ecuadoreans are preparing for trial.

As we file this post, there is one brief comment on the Legal News Line article from a reader named Peter. We don't know who Peter is but we think he nails it:

The fact that Donziger is prepared to risk a huge financial judgement in order to be tried by jury clearly illustrates which side is more confident of its merits.

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