Will The Supreme Court Strike Down Chevron's Facially Corrupt RICO Case?

05/16/2017 12:03 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2017

Okay folks, the briefs are in. (And online, except Chevron's opposition, which I've seen but which Chevron seems to be hiding from the internet.) Our side will still file a reply, but nonetheless it's go time on the petition to the Supreme Court to review the shameful U.S. lower court judgments in Chevron's unapologetically corrupt RICO attack on its Ecuadorian contamination victims and their lawyer, Steven Donziger.

The Donziger/Ecuadorian brief is here. Necessarily, its arguments are limited to the narrow legal grounds that justify the Supreme Court’s discretionary intervention at this point. (The Supreme Court receives around 8,000 petitions each year and agrees to hear on 60-80 of them, or less than 1%). Nonetheless, it sets out two strong reasons for review: (1) the disturbing implications of allowing a losing party in foreign litigation like Chevron to use the RICO statute to launch a collateral attack in its “chosen forum,” i.e. its home-country courts, and (2) of allowing a party to sue in RICO solely for “injunctive” relief. This latter argument is significant because a party can demand injunctive relief without having to present its case to a jury. In this case, Chevron dropped all its money damages claims on the eve of trial so that only Judge Kaplan (the notoriously biased district court judge who stated on the record that Chevron was "a company of considerable importance to our economy" and that the Ecuador case was the product of the "imagination" of "American lawyers") would have the power to decide the case, not a jury.

Subsequently, a variety of scholars and civil society groups filed briefs outlining broader and yet more disturbing implications of allowing Chevron’s collateral attack to stand. For example, one group of leading organizations such as Friends of the Earth stated:

[We] regularly engage in First Amendment-protected activities similar to those that were found to be predicate acts under RICO in this case. [If the case is allowed to go forward, our] exercise of [our] First Amendment rights of free speech, association, and petitioning government will be severely chilled by the very real possibility that [we] will have to mount costly defenses to retaliatory litigation brought by deep-pocketed corporations whose conduct Amici publicly oppose.

Another group of organizations took a closer look at the deeply corrupt nature of the “evidence” that Chevron used to support its core claims in the case, such as the claim that there was a bribery agreement--a claim solely supported by the testimony of a “fact” witness, Alberto Guerra, to whom Chevron directed over $2 million in cash and benefits. (Paying fact witnesses for their testimony is illegal.) See more here, here, here, and here.

The Republic of Ecuador also filed a brief condemning the process of U.S. courts, in particular highlighting how U.S. courts repeatedly (but not surprisingly) misunderstood Ecuadorian law and procedure. In his 500-page opinion, the U.S. trial judge went on and on about how this or that was a “fraud” on the Ecuadorian court, under Ecuadorian law, that somehow required heroic efforts by a U.S. judge to step in and save the day. Please. Ecuador’s Supreme Court, the real expert in Ecuadorian law, considered the exact same allegations and summed up the reality of the situation:

[Chevron] never demonstrated fraud, which it has been claiming without any legal support. We reiterate that it has not proven any omission or violation of procedure that would give rise to the nullity sought. [Chevron’s] incessant harping in this regard departs from procedural good faith.

Just as important as all the briefs is the recent release of a damning new Report highlighting the corrupt foundations of Chevron's RICO case (e.g., its reliance on Guerra despite sign after sign of his corruption and falsity), and providing detailed responses to all the various secondary smears and allegations in the "demonization" campaign (Chevron's own words) that Chevron used to drive hysteria and momentum in order to get the case over the finish line.

The report paints an ugly picture of U.S. courts embracing, tacitly adopting, or even just tolerating extreme corruption and foul play by a U.S. company in its blatantly self-serving and out-of-bounds legal attack against an historic human rights case. Why would U.S. courts do this? There are surely some long and complicated answers to this question, but also some simple ones. Consider this quote by the district judge (Lewis A. Kaplan, effectively chosen by Chevron to hear the case), stated out loud from the bench in the opening days of the RICO case:

[W]e are dealing here with a company of considerable 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 [the Ecuadorians] have attached it in Singapore or wherever else [as part of enforcing their judgment].

It's just dumbfounding how biased this is--and how ridiculous. That the judge's desire to protect Chevron could be driven to such levels of ridiculousness speaks to the depth of the bias. Or consider this quote, also by Kaplan from the bench in a related proceeding before the RICO case even began:

The imagination of American lawyers is just without parallel in the world. It is our one absolutely overwhelming comparative advantage against the rest of the world, apart from medicine. You know, we used to do a lot of other things. Now we cure people and we kill them with interrogatories. It’s a sad pass. But that’s where we are. And Mr. Donziger [with the Ecuador judgment] is trying to become the next big thing in fixing the balance of payments deficit. I got it from the beginning.

Boy, you couldn't see where this case was going, could you?

Where it went was a place just as ugly as these quotes suggest--in fact, uglier, because as detailed in the amicus and in the new report, Chevron sunk to new depths by paying Guerra massive sums of money to invent a "bribery" claim, and Judge Kaplan bought it.

What we are left with is a patently disgraceful picture of a swaggering U.S. company which (1) engineered a dismissal of environmental claims to Ecuador, (2) didn't like the result it got in Ecuador, (3) came running back to its home country courts for protection; and (4) despite a mountain of international and domestic legal principles that should have prevented it, got U.S. courts to jump to its aid. Specifically, it got a "freestanding determination of the facts" (Chevron's words) that is unconnected from any specific legal relief but that gives Chevron a new weapon to wave around in enforcement jurisdictions around the world (where the Ecuadorians are enforcing their judgment, after Chevron pulled all its assets out of Ecuador).

Ultimately, the RICO judgment should not stop any of these enforcement actions, because those non-U.S. courts are perfectly capable of coming to their own views on Chevron’s bogus “fraud” claims and are not going to roll over to corrupt/paid evidence the way U.S. courts did. But it will certainly give Chevron yet more delay, in a case which has already gone on for nearly 25 years while each year more and more victims die and new generations of children are poisoned

The Supreme Court has one last chance to stop Chevron’s self-serving legal circus from becoming law of the land and a stain on U.S. legal history. It has a chance to do something to help the underlying human tragedy.

The odds are overwhelmingly against review as a general matter, but we must still hope.

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