A press release issued today by the DC-based Gowen Group law firm outlines this potentially game-changing legal update in the case. Founding partner Chris Gowen has taken up duties as an adviser to and spokesperson for Steven Donziger, the New York human rights lawyer who has earned the ire of Chevron for his dogged two-decade effort to bring the oil giant to justice for massive pollution and human rights abuses in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
The press release continues:
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has set Sept. 26 for oral argument on the petition to reassign the judge, who has been criticized for unfairly promoting a retaliatory Chevron “fraud” case against Ecuadorians villagers and their U.S. counsel. The reassignment petition, which is based primarily on Judge Kaplan’s refusal to follow prior appellate court orders in the case, can be read here and here.Judge Lewis A. Kaplan is presiding over a lawsuit brought by Chevron against Donziger, Ecuadorian community leaders and Goldman prize winners Pablo Fajardo and Luis Yanza, as well as dozens of the "named plaintiffs" in the original suit against the oil company. Most of the named plaintiffs are from indigenous communities living in an area of the Ecuadorian Amazon devastated by Chevron's oil pollution. These communities have seen their livelihoods destroyed by pollution, their culture decimated by rainforest destruction, and lost loved ones to cancer and other diseases related to the toxins Chevron has admitted dumping into their environment. But that hasn't stopped Chevron from retaliating, and Judge Kaplan has wondered aloud whether these people even exist.
From the press release:
Judge Kaplan has been accused of bias for calling the Ecuador case a "giant game" invented by lawyers to “fix the balance of payments deficit” of the United States. He also referred to thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians as the "so-called" plaintiffs before imposing an illegal injunction purporting to block the Ecuador judgment from being enforced anywhere in the world. For background, see here and here.Donziger and the other defendants in the Chevron's retaliatory RICO case filed what is called a petition for a writ of mandamus, asking the Appeals Court to remove Kaplan form the case due to the bias he has repeatedly shown towards Chevron.
Judge Kaplan’s injunction was reversed unanimously in 2011 by a three-judge appellate panel, dealing a stunning rebuke to Chevron’s primary defense in the case. The current petition for reassignment explains how Kaplan has continued to defy that appellate order by issuing a series of decisions disparaging Ecuador’s judicial system.
Amazon Watch's Eye on the Amazon blog writes that Kaplan insinuates that an "important company like Chevron should be guarded from judgment collection efforts that apparently might be acceptable if the company were deemed less vital" and quotes Judge Kaplan from an early court proceeding:
"[W]e are dealing here with a company of considerable otherwise importance to our economy that employs thousands all over the world, that supplies a group of commodities, gasoline, heating oil, other fuels and lubricants on which every one of us depends every single day. I don't think there is anybody in this courtroom who wants to pull his car into a gas station to fill up and finds that there isn't any gas there because these folks have attached it in Singapore or wherever else."Back to today's press release for comment from Chris Gowen, an adjunct professor at the Washington College of Law who is advising the Ecuadorians and Donziger: “Chevron is desperately suing everybody it can to evade a valid judgment won by the rainforest communities the company has contaminated with toxic waste,” he said. “Chevron’s approach is clearly one of the greatest abuses of the legal system ever.”
Judge Kaplan has made numerous rulings and comments that will likely come under additional scrutiny when oral arguments on the mandamus petition take place in front of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 26th.
Already, Chevron has displayed some jitters as the the company's retaliatory lawsuit approaches a trial date. As reported here last week:
In an otherwise routine scheduling conference recently before Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, Gibson Dunn lawyer Randy Mastro suggested the oil giant was prepared to drop all damages claims against the Ecuadorians and their counsel, Steven Donziger, just to avoid a jury trial.Chevron was hoping that it could get a fraud finding from Judge Kaplan without having a new round of evidence of the company's abuses put under a spotlight before a jury and the public. But with Judge Kaplan under scrutiny himself, he doesn't look inclined to go that route.
It would seem that Judge Kaplan has been one of Chevron's best assets in the company's cynical efforts to evade responsibilty for its disaster in Ecuador. Should the Appeals Court re-assign him, it would be a huge blow to those efforts.
And as always: for background on how Chevron decimated indigenous and farmer communities by dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste in Ecuador’s Amazon, watch this video overview or this 60 Minutes segment, or review this summary of the overwhelming evidence against the company. Chevron is now fighting a $19 billion judgment against the company.
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