Law Students from NYU, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Berkeley Join Growing Global Campaign to Support Human Rights Lawyer Steven Donziger
Zoom Protest Demanding Release from Chevron-orchestrated House Arrest Set for Oct. 29; Lawyers Seek Dismissal of Charges or Delay of Trial Due to COVID Pandemic
New York, NY – Global support for human rights lawyer Steven Donziger continues to grow with the release of a letter signed by hundreds of public interest law students demanding New York’s highest court allow him to challenge a deeply flawed decision blocking him from practicing law after winning a historic $9.5 billion pollution judgment over Chevron in Ecuador.
The letter comes on top of the announcement of a global on-line rally to demand the release of Mr. Donziger, scheduled for Oct. 29 at 7:30 ET (New York). The rally is being supported by dozens of prominent artists, lawyers and activists -- including Sting and Trudie Styler, Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters, Goldman Prize winner Luis Yanza, Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams, civil rights lawyer Martin Garbus, and Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson.
Titled “Free and Dismiss”, the rally has the goal of releasing Mr. Donziger from 15 months of house arrest where he is being held without trial on a highly questionable criminal contempt charge where the maximum sentence is six months in prison. His scheduled trial is Nov. 4, but due to the COVID pandemic neither his lawyers nor most of his witnesses can travel safely to court and it is unclear if the trial can happen consistent with the Constitution (see here).
The law student letter expresses support for a petition demanding that the New York Court of Appeals accept the recommendation of a neutral judicial officer that Mr. Donziger’s law license be reinstated immediately or that the lawyer be given a hearing to prove his fitness to practice law. That hearing officer, former federal prosecutor John Horan, heard testimony last year from 15 lawyers and academics in support of Donziger and issued 45 pages of detailed findings praising the lawyer’s integrity; his findings later were overturned without a hearing by an appellate court in a two-page summary order. (Mr. Donziger has not received any client complaints in 29 years of law practice.)
Horan’s decision in favor of Mr. Donziger is here; evidence of the bar’s mistreatment of Mr. Donziger is here.
Two students from the Stanford Environmental Law Society organized the letter, which was signed by 285 law students from schools in every region of the country – including (in addition to Stanford) Harvard, Yale, University of California at Berkeley, New York University, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio State, St. John’s, Boston College, and others. The full letter, which describes Chevron’s use of 60 law firms and 2,000 lawyers to attack Mr. Donziger, is here.
“We, law students pursuing careers in the public interest, write to support Steven Donziger’s motion to appeal his disbarment,” the students said. “Future public interest lawyers must be able to expect fair proceedings in front of the bar if they are forced to defend themselves against the retaliatory tactics that Mr. Donziger has faced.”
“Jurists and human rights experts from around the world have expressed grave concern over the implications of Mr. Donziger’s case,” they added. “[Donziger’s case] threatens critical public interest litigation that grants underrepresented groups access to justice.”
The Ecuador judgment against Chevron was won by Mr. Donziger and a team of international lawyers in 2011 on behalf of Indigenous groups in the Amazon region who for more than five decades have been victimized by the deliberate dumping by Texaco of billions of gallons of cancer-causing oil waste on their ancestral territories, leading to an epidemic of cancer and massive dislocation. Chevron became responsible for the liability when it bought Texaco in 2001.
Six appellate courts in Ecuador and Canada with a total of 29 judges have affirmed the Ecuador trial judgment on the merits or for enforcement purposes, including the Supreme Courts of both countries. To retaliate, Chevron and its lead law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher launched an avowed “demonize Donziger” campaign and later obtained a civil “racketeering” judgment against the lawyer and his clients from Judge Kaplan in 2014 in a non-jury trial.
A former tobacco industry lawyer with an evident bias against Mr. Donziger and all things Ecuador, Judge Kaplan based his findings largely on false testimony from an admittedly corrupt Chevron witness paid $2 million by the company. The witness, Alberto Guerra, later admitted under oath he had lied repeatedly on the stand in Kaplan’s court after being paid by Chevron. Nevertheless, Judge Kaplan relied on Guerra’s testimony to persuade New York judicial authorities to suspend Mr. Donziger’s law license without a hearing.
The Stanford students who organized the letter said they were “disturbed” by the treatment of Mr. Donziger, who lives with his wife and son in Manhattan and has been unable to earn income for his entire detention.
“We are disturbed that any lawyer – especially a respected human rights lawyer – can have his law license revoked without the opportunity to challenge suspect findings of fact that are rejected by other courts around the world,” said Catherine Rocchi, the President of the Stanford Environmental Law Society.
“This practice of denying hearings exacerbates a pattern of corporate retaliation against public interest attorneys,” she added. “I organized this open letter to support Mr. Donziger but also to advocate for a generation of public interest lawyers. We need to know that courts will respect our rights when we challenge corporate interests.”
Elias Schultz, a Stanford student who also helped organize the letter, said, “Chevron’s retaliation against Mr. Donziger, and the New York Appellate Division’s disbarment of him without a hearing, has made me concerned for the future of public interest lawyering. Large corporations are too often able to bend the law to scare off potential challenges. New York’s practice of denying hearings in disciplinary proceedings based on civil findings amounts to a seal of approval for this harmful tactic. This letter was written because of the urgent need to prevent large, well-resourced corporations from gaining another tool to avoid accountability for pollution and other harms they cause.”
The student letter comes on top of a powerful statement issued days ago by an international trial monitoring committee criticizing the extensive due process violations taking place in Mr. Donziger’s current criminal contempt case.
In that matter, Judge Kaplan charged Mr. Donziger after the lawyer appealed an order from the civil case that he turn over his computer and cell phone to Chevron – a move that he believed would have violated his ethics obligations and put the lives of his clients in danger. Judge Kaplan then assigned the contempt case to Judge Loretta Preska, a member of the Chevron-funded Federalist Society, and appointed a prosecutor from a private law firm that later admitted Chevron was a client.
Donziger has challenged the entire prosecution is the product of an egregious conflict of interest, but Preska (who is herself conflicted) has refused to dismiss the case. To the contrary, she is trying to force Donziger to trial on Nov. 4 when neither his lawyers nor his witnesses can get to court due to the COVID pandemic.
Judge Preska also has kept Mr. Donziger under house arrest without trial for 15 months even though the longest sentence ever imposed in New York for the charge is three months of home confinement.
No lawyer in the United States other than Mr. Donziger has ever been held pre-trial on a criminal contempt charge, while the longest sentence ever imposed on a lawyer is three months of home confinement. Kaplan’s charges targeting Mr. Donziger were rejected by the U.S. attorney’s office.
Those supporting Mr. Donziger include 29 Nobel laureates, 475 lawyers and bar associations, national bar societies of several countries, the respected Canadian human rights group Lawyer’s Watch, and international lawyers who are monitoring his trial including two former U.S. war crimes prosecutors who have called out due process violations in the case.
Several journalists have started to report in more detail on the judicial and corporate harassment of Donziger, including VICE media (here); Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Chris Hedges (here); and David Sirota of The American Prospect (here).
For background on the evidence against Chevron in Ecuador, see here.
Student contact: Catherine Rocchi at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-715-6563