This week marked the opening of the new Supreme Court term, with John Roberts at the helm, the conservative majority champing at the bit, and the newest justice, Elena Kagan, taking her seat for the first time. It also is the occasion of the release of Alliance for Justice's new short film, Crude Justice, which exposes the terrible dilemma facing hard-pressed victims of the Gulf oil spill as they are forced to choose between suing BP in court and taking a payment from the company's $20 billion compensation fund.
It's easy at the beginning of any Supreme Court term to get caught up in all the pomp and circumstance and the esoteric legal issues that will be argued in the Court's hushed chamber. It's harder sometimes to remember that the cases the Court takes involve real people whose lives, livelihoods, and freedoms are at stake.
But it's not so hard this year, because the voices and stories of the struggling people of the Gulf we interviewed for Crude Justice are an unequivocal reminder of what's at stake in our courts.
Our film shows that there are no simple, completely satisfying answers to the legal conundrums in the Gulf. Despite BP's heavily (and expensively) advertised promise to "make this right," the reality is that the BP spill wrecked the lives of tens of thousands of people and it's impossible to put everything back the way it was before. BP, with all its resources, and its ability to make money hand over fist, can come back, but a small-businesswoman or an oysterman who has lost a year's worth of customers and income cannot. What makes the situation even more troubling and uncertain, both legally and personally, is that no one knows how long the environmental and economic effects of five million barrels of oil will last. Will the fisheries and tourists come back, and if so, how soon?
As Crude Justice explains, there are two basic paths toward just and fair compensation. On the one hand, a victim can take BP's offer of short-term help for current losses and then, later, a final payment, one condition of which is that he or she forgoes the right to sue BP in the future. On the other, victims have the right to pursue their claims through the courts, which have the advantage of having rules and procedures that theoretically should level the playing field, but which have the disadvantage of being in a region well stocked with judges that are thoroughly embedded in an oil culture. The route through the courts also takes plaintiffs on a path that leads ultimately to a strongly pro-corporate Supreme Court.
And that's where the release of Crude Justice and the opening of the Supreme Court term come together.
Professor Oliver Houck from the Tulane Law School appears in the film and declares, "Valdez hangs over this BP blowout like a cloud." What he's referring to, of course, is not just the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1987, but the subsequent court case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, where John Roberts and his conservative allies, after almost 20 years of litigation, gave Exxon a big gift by slashing the Alaska trial jury's punitive damages award by 90 percent. The 32,000 plaintiffs in that case, many of whom had died in the two decades it took to resolve, learned first hand about the nature of the current Corporate Court and its willingness to ensure that nothing will stand in the way of corporate interests or profit, not even the suffering of people whose lives have been wrecked and who have waited two decades for some measure of justice.
The decision in the Exxon case demonstrates that Supreme Court decisions are not abstract intellectual exercises. And now, in 2010, the effects of that case are still reverberating, touching the lives of thousands of people in the Gulf who have never been to Alaska, but whose ability to collect punitive damages has been crippled by an ideological Court with a clear agenda.
The film is both heartbreaking and hopeful as we chronicle the fight for justice and the struggle of the hard-working people of the Gulf to make their lives whole again. The people we interviewed told us over and over again that they are afraid they'll be forgotten as the crisis recedes in the public mind. They also told us they will never give up their fight. We made Crude Justice to ensure that their stories are told and to hold both BP and the legal system accountable for what comes next.
View the 17-minute film below, or at www.crudejustice.org.
Follow Nan Aron on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NanAron