Chevron adversary Steven Donziger appeals conviction to U.S. Supreme Court

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Attorney Steven Donziger, who won a multi-billion dollar judgment against Chevron on behalf of Ecuadorian villagers. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

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  • Donziger won a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron for pollution in Ecuador
  • A Chevron suit against him led to contempt charges and a lengthy house arrest

(Reuters) – Steven Donziger, a lawyer who won a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron Corp for polluting the Ecuadorian rainforest but was later convicted of criminal contempt asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday to review his conviction.

Donziger, 61, told the U.S. Supreme Court that the court-appointed lawyers who prosecuted him were acting without supervision from the Department of Justice or other executive branch officers, which violates principles of separation of powers.

The Harvard Law School graduate, who received a six-month jail sentence for misdemeanor contempt in addition to over 900 days of house arrest, said that the case has broader implications beyond his conviction. If left standing, the rationale of the two lower courts would sow confusion about the authority of judicially-appointed prosecutors and create a “constitutional no-man’s-land between the branches.”

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The case has roots in a 2014 decision by U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in Manhattan, who refused to enforce the $9.5 billion judgment Donziger won in an Ecuadorian court three years earlier.

Donziger had won that judgment after representing villagers in Ecuador’s Lago Agrio region who blamed water and soil contamination on Texaco, later acquired by Chevron.

Kaplan said in his decision that Donziger had secured that judgment after bribing the judge, ghostwriting a court opinion and environmental report, tampering with witnesses and extortion.

Chevron then sought to recoup money from the attorney, and Kaplan charged him with contempt in 2019 after he refused to turn over his electronic devices to the California-based company’s forensic experts to review.

The U.S. attorney in Manhattan declined to prosecute those charges, citing a lack of resources, which prompted Kaplan to appoint private lawyers.

993 DAYS OF HOUSE ARREST

U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska found Donziger guilty on six misdemeanor contempt charges in July 2021, and sentenced the attorney to six months in prison. Donziger was released in April after a combined 993 days of house arrest and 45 days in prison – a detainment that was decried by human rights campaigners, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

A federal appeals court upheld the conviction in June in a split decision, with Circuit Judge Michael Park writing for the majority that the lower court had the authority to appoint prosecutors, who are then subject to supervision by the U.S. attorney general.

Dissenting, Judge Steven Menashi said that giving judges the power to initiate prosecutions but the executive branch power to oversee them “undermines the constitutional principle that the entire ‘executive power’ belongs to the President alone.”

The U.S Department of Justice didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case is Steven Donziger v. United States, United States Supreme Court, No. not immediately available.

For Donziger: Stephen Vladeck of the University of Texas School of Law; Erik Jaffe, Gene Schaerr, H. Christopher Bartolomucci, Hannah Smith, Kathryn Tarbert and James Heilpern of Schaerr Jaffe; William Taylor and David Reiser of Zuckerman Spaeder

For the U.S. government: Not immediately available

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