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Environmental advocate who took on Chevron loses SCOTUS bid to reverse unusual judge-ordered prosecution

Steven Donziger at pre-sentencing rally

Steven Donziger attends his pre-sentencing rally.

Reaching the end of the road in his criminal battle, environmental advocate Steven Donziger failed to persuade the Supreme Court to review his unusual judge-ordered prosecution that ended in a jail sentence.

Donziger, who became a liberal cause célèbre and a conservative boogeyman for landing a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron in Ecuador, did muster sympathy from two justices on the court’s right flank: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

“Our Constitution does not tolerate what happened here,” Gorsuch wrote in a blistering dissent. The two conservative justices found his case deserved high court review.

In 2011, Donziger helped secure a multi-billion dollar judgment on behalf of thousands of indigenous people and other rainforest residents in Ecuador. The then-rising attorney amassed legal, financial and star firepower for that fight, winning the support of left-leaning celebrities like Alec Baldwin, Bianca Jagger, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. He invited a documentary crew from the film “Crude” to capture their legal rumble in the Amazon, resulting in a movie that depicted a David vs. Goliath fight.

Chevron used outtakes from that movie to try to discredit the case, arguing in court that they were being defrauded in Ecuador. They found a receptive ear with Senior U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who effectively blocked the collection of the Ecuadorean judgment in the United States. Kaplan found that Donziger secured the ruling “by corrupt means,” including fraud and bribery. Donziger never has been charged with those crimes. He maintains his innocence and claims the civil ruling rests on the testimony of a corrupt Ecuadorean judge who became a key Chevron witness.

The criminal case took root after Donziger refused to comply with post-verdict discovery rulings, and Kaplan referred contempt of court charges to the U.S. Attorney’s office. Federal prosecutors declined to prosecute Donziger, but Kaplan would not take no for an answer. The judge signed criminal charges himself and hired private attorneys on the taxpayer dime to prosecute Donziger.

Of the nine-justice bench, only Gorsuch and Kavanaugh publicly found that conduct unconstitutional.

“However much the district court may have thought Mr. Donziger warranted punishment, the prosecution in this case broke a basic constitutional promise essential to our liberty,” they wrote. “In this country, judges have no more power to initiate a prosecution of those who come before them than prosecutors have to sit in judgment of those they charge.”

Donziger protested every wrinkle of the unusual criminal proceedings. Kaplan appointed his colleague, former Chief Judge Loretta Preska, to preside over the case, and she found that the misdemeanor charges did not entitle Donziger to a jury. Preska ordered Donziger’s house arrest, which extended for years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then, when issuing the maximum 6-month sentence allowed under the statutes, Preska refused to grant Donziger time-served for the time he spent wearing an ankle bracelet in his Upper West Side apartment.

In a statement on the ruling, Donziger continued to depict the case as a private prosecution by Big Oil.

“In a huge blow to the rule of law, the US Supreme Court today let stand Chevron’s prosecution and 3-year detention of me after helping Indigenous peoples win the historic Amazon pollution case,” Donziger said.

Chevron denies any role in Donziger’s prosecution, saying the decision was made by Kaplan alone.

Read the ruling here.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."