Lawmakers, including AOC, Urge DOJ To Release Imprisoned Environmental Lawyer Who Won Case Against Chevron

Nicole Alexander Fisher
5 min readDec 2, 2021
Photo by Pamela Drew (CC BY-NC 2.0)

On Monday, nine House Democrats wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging him to take action regarding the imprisonment of Steven Donziger, an American attorney who represented indigenous communities in a $9.5 billion lawsuit against Chevron.

The letter was led by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (MI-13) and Congressman Jesús G. “Chuy” García (IL-04), who called on the Department of Justice to take immediate action to rectify the “unprecedented and unjust imprisonment of Mr. Donziger”. Donziger was found guilty of charges for contempt of court in July and reported to prison in late October of this year after being under house arrest for more than two years.

Seven lawmakers joined Tlaib and Garcia in calling for Donziger’s release, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), Ilhan Omar (MN-05), Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Jamaal Bowman (NY-16), Barbara Lee (TX-13), Cori Bush (MO-01), and Raul Grijalva (AZ-03).

“That an internationally respected human rights lawyer sits in prison right now while Chevron avoids billions in judgments for intentionally destroying the rainforest is an outrage that highlights just how critical our fight against corporate greed is to our future,” said Tlaib in a press release, “The DOJ should intervene immediately to rectify this situation or risk endorsing it as a blueprint for turning victims and their lawyers into criminals.”

Donziger was famous for representing indigenous people in Ecuador in a lawsuit against Texaco (an American oil brand bought by Chevron in 2001) for their oil drilling operations in the Amazon, resulting in what Amnesty International has deemed “one of the worst oil-related environmental disasters in contemporary history”. In 1993, Donziger had brought a class-action lawsuit against Texaco on behalf of the 30,000 local inhabitants of the region which is sometimes referred to as the “Amazon Chernobyl” due to the untreated toxic waste site by the oil spill that has polluted the rainforest ecosystem and drinking water sources, resulting in excess cases of cancer deaths to thousands of indigenous people in the region.

A long, drawn-out legal battle between Donziger and Chevron began. Chevron argued that due to an agreement signed by Texaco to Ecuador in 1998 for a $40 million cleanup, the company had been absolved from liability due to the spill. Chevron also claimed that Petroecuador, Ecuador’s state-run oil company that partnered with Texaco, was responsible for much of the damage due to the oil spill.

Donziger eventually won the $18 billion lawsuit in 2001, which was later reduced to $9.5 billion. Chevron moved its assets out of the country and avoided paying these damages.

A countersuit by Chevron against Donziger ensued. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the U.S. District Court of Manhattan, who presided over the case, supported Chevron, ruling in 2014 that the initial judgement in Ecuador was “invalid” and “not fair and impartial” due to bribery and coercion, a judgement disputed by some due to a witness admitting to changing his story, which undermined the original bribery allegations. Donziger was then disbarred in 2018 by an independent referee of the state bar association, who called Donziger’s pursuit of Chevron “extravagant” and “unnecessary”. Meanwhile, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague also ruled in favor of Chevron, stating that the $9.5 billion judgment in Ecuador was marked by “fraud and corruption” and “should not be recognized or enforced by the courts of other States”, and that Texaco’s $40 million settlement to Ecuador had already absolved Chevron of liability.

As part of the appeals process, Kaplan asked Donziger to submit his phone, computer, and other electronic devices so the court could have access to decades worth of client communications. Donziger refused to do so, arguing that this would violate attorney-client privilege. He was also asked to hand over his passport and to drop attempts to obtain the original award against Chevron. Donziger refused, and was then charged with six counts of criminal contempt of court while his appeal was pending.

After the Southern District Court of New York refused to prosecute Donziger, Kaplan then hired a private law firm, Seward & Kissel, to prosecute Donziger. Seward & Kissel has a history of representing oil and gas companies, including Chevron. Donziger was then sentenced to house arrest by senior District Judge Loretta Preska. Activists noted that Preska served on the advisory board of The Federalist Society, which has taken financial contributions from Chevron. In July, Donziger was found guilty of all six contempt charges. Donziger appealed the sentence, which was rejected by a federal appellate court, and he reported to prison on October 27th, 2021.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called Donziger’s house arrest “illegal” and a “violation of international law” due to his sentencing extending beyond the maximum period. The UN Working Group also concluded that the judges involved in Donziger’s sentencing, Kaplan and Preska, failed international and fair trial standards, including the perception of impartiality of the courts. They have also concluded that Donziger’s prosecution and sentencing appears to be in retaliation to his work against Chevron. Multiple human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, also condemned Donziger’s house arrest, calling the prosecution of Donziger a “long-running campaign of intimidation and harassment against Donziger and other human rights defenders”.

Tlaib, García, and the additional congressmembers stated in Monday’s letter to the DOJ that enlisting a major international law firm representing Chevron to prosecute Donziger creates a “chilling effect” for this type of advocacy going forward, a view that was shared by the UN Working Group. The DOJ, however, in November, defended the appointment of the private law firm to prosecute Donziger, rejecting his argument that this violated the U.S. Constitution’s appointments clause.

The lawmakers, however, are not satisfied with the DOJ’s view.

“An esteemed U.S. human rights attorney is being unjustly imprisoned by our very own courts in violation of international law, not for some real harm he did, but for protecting his vulnerable clients and his ability to serve them from the one of the most toxic companies the world has ever seen,” the congressmembers stated, “When the UN and international environmental and human rights communities repeatedly call for immediate action, the Biden administration must not remain silent.”

The toxic waste in the Ecuadorian rainforest still impacts indigenous communities today. Chevron has asserted that Texaco has already cleaned up its share of the damage.

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Nicole Alexander Fisher

Writer based in Philadelphia. Work appears in CNN and Forbes.