Talk about unfortunate timing. Just as conservatives in Congress shamelessly announced their latest "drill everywhere" energy plan on the steps of the Capitol yesterday, a major oil spill closed down part of the Mississippi River. The dissonance was probably easier because they weren't present in a packed hearing room just a few hours earlier, where a victim of the worst oil spill in U.S. history delivered emotional testimony about the damage that oil companies' bottom-line-driven recklessness has done to the livelihood of 32,000 Americans -- and by extension of some legal sleight-of-hand, to the Constitution.
There, a Judiciary Committee hearing convened by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) examined the Supreme Court's troubling movement towards siding with corporations over individual citizens and juries of their peers-- a trend encapsulated by the Court's ruling in Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker last month. The star witness was Osa Schultz, an Alaska fisherwoman and remarkably energetic small-business entrepreneur from the coastal town of Cordova. She and her husband were partners in a thriving fishing cooperative that nearly went bankrupt after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
They are still feeling the financial impact of the spill nearly 20 years later, long after the three-year period covered by compensatory damages in the case.
Osa isn't an environmental activist by choice or trade; this was one of her first visits to Washington. And she has long been open, like many Alaskans, to the development of drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), but now she's not so sure. Much like Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, she recognizes that drilling our way out of a dangerous addiction to oil is both impossible and pointless, and is directly tied to the mindset that caused such devastating results in her community.
In her Senate testimony yesterday, she asked: "If our highest court in America fails to hold [Exxon] accountable, how will they ever be forced to take responsibility for their destructive actions?" It's a good question. And perhaps environmentally devastating spills like the one yesterday might happen less often if corporations had to pay the full cost of their reckless behavior.
Rather than pulling stunts like yesterday's press conference, politicians should be using this election campaign to listen to the voices of fed-up Americans like Osa; her husband; and their neighbors among the Tatitlek Alaska Native community, who have seen their entire way of life irrevocably altered in wake of the oil spill. They deserve judges who will take seriously the Constitution's deference to impartial juries, like the one that decided to make Exxon pay back a fraction of the spill's true cost. And moreover, they deserve leadership that recognizes the damage done to our climate, land and oceans, and overall economy by our addiction to fossil fuels, and squarely emphasizes the development of alternative energy sources and a new "green" economy.
*This post was co-authored with Sean Siperstein, New Media Director of the Constitutional Accountability Center.
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