Monitoring Committee to Judge Preska: Forcing Donziger to Trial During COVID Pandemic Is Unconstitutional

As COVID Surges In New York, Zoom-style Trial Sought by Private Prosecutor Does Not Meet Constitutional Standards of Due Process 

New York, NY – A committee of prominent lawyers and academics monitoring the trial of human rights lawyer Steven Donziger has issued a statement questioning recent decisions by Judge Loretta Preska to try to force a hasty “Zoom-style” trial that will block Donziger’s right to mount a defense and be represented by famed civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby. 

The monitoring committee, which announced its formation in August, is also criticizing Judge Preska for threatening to strip Mr. Donziger of his ability to call witnesses by scheduling the trial for a time when the COVID pandemic has created travel restrictions from other countries.  If Preska has her way, Mr. Donziger will be one of the first defendants tried in New York federal court since the pandemic emerged and much of the trial be take place via computer. 

In a statement released today, the Committee cited a hearing held by Judge Preska on Oct. 5 in the Donziger case that raised concerns “with respect to fundamental principles of due process of law, the right to a fair and public trial, the right to counsel, the right to an unbiased judge and fact finder, and the right to a disinterested prosecutor.”  

The full statement by the Donziger Case Monitoring Committee (DCMC), which includes former ACLU President Nadine Strossen and Duke Law Professor Michael Tigar, is here.  Also on the committee are Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson; Simon Taylor of Global Witness; Christopher “Kip” Hale, an international war crimes prosecutor; and Jeannie Mirer, the President of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, a U.N.-affiliated group. 

The committee delivered its statement to Colleen McMahon, the chief judge of the New York trial court, and Debra Ann Livingston, the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for New York. It follows the submission of a 40-page ethics complaint to the same appellate court seeking a probe of New York Judge Lewis A. Kaplan for alleged misconduct in his targeting of Mr. Donziger that was signed by 37 bar associations and over 200 lawyers around the world.  

Kaplan charged Mr. Donziger with criminal contempt in August 2019 and later appointed Preska to preside without going through the normal random case selection process. Kaplan’s charges -- which mostly center on Donziger’s refusal to comply with an unprecedented order that he turn over his computer and cell phone to Chevron -- were rejected by the federal prosecutor in New York. Kaplan then took the extraordinary step of appointing as “prosecutor” a private law firm that covered up the fact Chevron was a client as it pushed for Mr. Donziger to be detained in his home.  

That private law firm, Seward & Kissel, has refused to recuse itself despite the conflict. It later was forced to disclose it has billed taxpayers at least $253,000 to prosecute Mr. Donziger for a misdemeanor – or 75 times higher than what public defense lawyers get paid for the same type of case, which is considered a low-level offense. Seward’s billings since have grown to at least $400,000 in what critics are calling a “for-profit” prosecution, according to estimates. 

At the Oct. 5 hearing, Judge Preska refused Mr. Donziger’s request that the trial date be set for Dec. 7 so Kuby can attend, or as soon thereafter as lawyers and witnesses can get to court safely given risks posed by the pandemic. Judge Preska set the trial for Nov. 4 when Mr. Donziger cannot get a lawyer to attend in court; the judge already has denied him a jury of his peers.  

Preska in August had dismissed Mr. Donziger’s two lead lawyers, Rick Friedman and Zoe Littlepage, due to a conflict raised by the private proseutor. Mr. Donziger’s choice of a replacement, Kuby, informed Preska last August he could only be ready for trial in early December because of other commitments. (Mr. Donziger’s other lawyer, Lauren Regan, lives in Oregon and believes she likely cannot travel safely to New York because of the pandemic; she also agreed only to work on a narrow portion of the case.) 

Mr. Donziger’s attorneys have accused Judge Preska of trying to set the trial during election week to engineer a fast conviction as part of a Chevron retaliation campaign after the lawyer helped Amazon Indigenous peoples win a historic $9.5 billion pollution judgment against the company in Ecuador. That judgment has been affirmed by six appellate courts in Ecuador and Canada, including by the Supreme Courts of both countries, after the company was found to have dumped 16 billion gallons cancer-causing oil waste onto Indigenous ancestral lands when it operated in the Amazon from 1964 to 1992. 

The criminal contempt case initiated by Judge Kaplan is ridden with conflicts of interest. 

Judge Preska is a prominent member of the pro-corporate Federalist Society, of which Chevron is a major donor; Kaplan never disclosed he had investments in Chevron and he has refused to recuse himself from Donziger’s contempt case; and, lead private prosecutor Rita Glavin remains a partner in a law firm that has Chevron and several major oil companies as clients. (See here for summary.) 

“This entire process in New York has been orchestrated by an oil company polluter retaliating against the lawyer who held it accountable for environmental crimes and fraud in the Amazon,” said Martin Garbus, the legendary New York civil rights lawyer who previously had represented Mr. Donziger but recently withdrew in protest of what he called Judge Preska’s “bullying” tactics. “This case is being facilitated by Judges Kaplan and Preska who appear to be on some sort of abusive schoolyard-style vengeance campaign against Steven,” he said. 

“In my 60 years practicing law, I have never seen a judge act with such blatant bias as Judge Preska has acted toward Steven Donziger,” he added. 

Some of Judge Preska’s recent decisions that have been questioned or criticized by the monitoring committee include the following: 

  • Detaining Mr. Donziger without trial for 15 months when the maximum sentence ever imposed on a lawyer convicted of criminal contempt is three months of home confinement. “In the United States, punishment may only follow a determination of guilt, not precede it,” the monitors stated. 

  • Denying Mr. Donziger’s right to counsel of his choice by refusing to set the trial date for a time when Kuby can attend and be adequately prepared. 

  • Making rulings prior to hearing arguments. Judge Preska started the hearing Oct. 5 “by reading her ultimate decision on the very issues upon which she was ruling” before the parties spoke. 

  • Scheduling the trial when Mr. Donziger’s witnesses (several of whom live in Ecuador, Spain, and Canada) cannot attend due to COVID restrictions.  

  • Putting at risk the lives of lawyers, witnesses, court personnel and Mr. Donziger by not waiting until the pandemic recedes to hold the trial safely without risk to health. Garbus, who is 87, already withdrew from the case in part because of the COVID health risk. 

Mr. Donziger has received significant public support in recent months, including from 29 Nobel laureates, human rights groups, celebrities such as Alec Baldwin and Roger Waters, and 475 lawyers and bar associations from the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.