The Monday criminal-contempt conviction of an infamously rogue lawyer should remind us all of the importance, in a constitutional republic such as ours, of maintaining and enforcing the rule of law.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska of New York decided that Steven Donziger, who for two decades has pressed an entirely bogus environmental case from the nation of Ecuador against oil giant Chevron, is guilty of six counts of criminal contempt of court. Another federal district judge, Lewis Kaplan, had charged Donziger with contempt for willfully and repeatedly refusing to comply with multiple court orders stemming from the Chevron case.
As the Washington Examiner reported back in 2008, Donziger and other attorneys worked with the Ecuadoran government to shake down Chevron for alleged environmental damage at oilfields once mined by Texaco but operated for years by Ecuador’s nationalized oil company. Ecuador’s government had inspected the fields and gave Texaco a clean bill of health, but then when a new, left-wing government took power, it suddenly went after Texaco and later Chevron, which had bought out Texaco in a corporate merger.
In a series of court proceedings with more twists than the worst Hollywood hack writers could invent, an Ecuadoran court ruled that Chevron should pay $27 billion for eco-damages but has never been able to collect because Chevron has blocked Ecuador’s collection efforts in court after court worldwide. Again and again, judicial bodies, including international courts at the Hague, have found Ecuador or Donziger to have acted in manifestly, even extravagantly, fraudulent ways, including using payoffs for the local judges.
Over a course of years in the United States, Kaplan has found Donziger in violation of multiple laws and rules of ethics, including violations of U.S. racketeering laws and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. A federal appeals court upheld most of Kaplan’s findings. Still, Donziger refused to pay mandated penalties or to comply with other Kaplan orders. Hence, Preska’s application of criminal charges to the lawyer.
Granted, Preska took explicit pains to emphasize that the new criminal convictions stemmed only from Donziger’s behavior in response to Kaplan’s earlier judgments and thus were “wholly unconcerned with” the underlying case involving Chevron and Ecuador. Still, without his behavior in the underlying case, and without the obviously bogus nature of the environmental claims against Texaco/Chevron, Donziger never would have faced the punitive orders from Kaplan, the ones he brazenly transgressed, in the first place.
Even if Donziger thinks Kaplan’s orders were unjust, wrote Preska in citing long-standing court precedent, “a lawyer, of all people, should know that in the face of a perceived injustice, one may not take the law into his own hands. By repeatedly and willfully defying Judge Kaplan’s orders, that is precisely what Mr. Donziger did. It’s time to pay the piper.”
That is this week’s most important takeaway, applicable not just to Donziger but more broadly. With radicals such as antifa on the Left and too many on the Right who think the whole “system” is rigged, there has been an abandonment of willingness to abide by the rules and laws of our constitutional order. This refusal to recognize that the rights of all are protected by adherence to constitutional processes, processes developed legitimately through the representative consent of the governed, puts all of us in jeopardy of proto-anarchy or creeping tyranny.
Preska is absolutely correct. These United States remain a legitimate constitutional system. Nobody within it has the right to take the law into his own hands.
To read the full story at the Washington Examiner, click here.