The wheels of justice turn in harsh ways when someone, even an attorney, bucks the system. Steve Donziger, the lawyer who took on the oil giant Chevron and won a nearly $10 billion verdict has found himself disbared and under house arrest for nearly two years. Forced to wear what he calls the “Black Claw.”
The Guardian 7.27.2021
Steven Donziger, the lawyer who has spearheaded a lengthy fight against Chevron over pollution in the Amazon rainforest, has been found guilty of criminal contempt by a US federal judge in the latest twist in his decades-long legal battle with the oil company.
The sprawling legal saga stems from a 2011 judgment in Ecuador where Chevron was ordered to pay $9.5bn in damages to people, represented by Donziger, blighted by decades of polluted air and water allegedly caused by the company’s oil drilling operations. Chevron has never paid this, claiming “shocking levels of misconduct” by Donziger and the Ecuadorian judiciary.
On Monday, US district judge Loretta Preska ruled that Donziger was guilty of six contempt charges brought against him for refusing to hand over evidence in a complex legal wrangle that has pitted the lawyer directly against Chevron.
Since August 2019, Donziger has been restricted to his elegant Manhattan apartment, a clunky court-mandated monitoring bracelet he calls “the black claw” continuously strapped to his left ankle. He cannot even venture into the hallway, or to pick up his mail. Exempted excursions for medical appointments or major school events for his 14-year-old son require permission days in advance. An indoor bike sits by the front door in lieu of alternative exercise options.
“There’s no comparison to quarantine because I can’t even go outside for a walk. If my kid is sick I can’t go to the drug store to get a prescription,” Donziger said. “I never truly understood freedom until I was put in this situation.”
“I expected this and I think we’ve got a very strong chance on appeal. I expect to be vindicated,” Donziger told the Guardian after the verdict. “The whole thing was rigged, it was a sham. I’m frankly embarrassed for my country that this has happened.”
Chevron has accused Donziger of bribing the judge in Ecuador and ghostwriting the final verdict, an accusation he strenuously denies. However, in 2016 a US judge, Lewis Kaplan, found that Donziger was involved in racketeering activity and granted Chevron seizure of the lawyer’s laptop and phone. When Donziger appealed against this, he was hit with the contempt charges and placed under house arrest.
In an unusual move, a private law firm that has previously done work for Chevron was hired to prosecute Donziger after federal government prosecutors declined to take up the case.
“I wasn’t prosecuted in a fair process, I didn’t have a jury and I think Chevron is behind all of this,” Donziger said.
Preska’s judgment explicitly denies the lawyer has been the victim of a conspiracy, however. “Contrary to Mr Donziger’s assertion that his conviction was ‘pre-ordained’, the court finds him guilty on each count for one reason and one reason only: Mr Donziger did that with which he is charged. Period,” she wrote.