Environmental Lawyer Facing Rare Prosecution Says His Judge Is Biased

Steven Donziger stands in front of an oil pump in Ecuador in this undated photo. (Photo permission courtesy of Steven Donziger)

MANHATTAN (CN) — She may not be the one who brought the charges against environmental lawyer Steven Donziger, but the federal judge tapped to preside over Donziger’s contempt trial will have to surmount bias allegations before the extremely rare court-ordered prosecution can begin.

“This type of arrangement is something I have never encountered in my decades of practice nor heard of from any other counsel practicing in other jurisdiction,” Ron Kuby wrote on Monday in a bid to disqualify U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska before Donziger’s trial stars in January.

Kuby, a legendary civil rights attorney who is name-dropped in “The Big Lebowski,” addressed his request to U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan who personally charged the now-disbarred Donziger for criminal contempt of court when the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute.

“I submit that this court is running afoul of Mr. Donizger’s fair-trial rights by playing too many roles in this criminal prosecution — you are the accuser; the person who selected the private prosecutors after the federal prosecutor refused the case; the person who selected the judge; and also, the judge,” Kuby wrote.

Donziger drew Judge Kaplan’s ire while representing indigenous Ecuadoreans in a multibillion lawsuit against Chevron over drilling in the Amazon. Kaplan ruled that the verdict against Chevron in Ecuador was one Donziger procured through fraud.

In arguing now for a random case transfer, Kuby notes that Preska “has extensive ties to the Chevron-funded Federalist Society,” and goes on to describe that organization’s “fierce anti-regulatory and pro-corporate stance.”

Demanding Kaplan’s recusal as well, he emphasizes that the judge “spent a quarter-century of his pre-judicial years work to defend Phillip Morris and other major tobacco companies.”

If convicted in the for-profit prosecution, the maximum punishment for Donziger is six months. He has been held for 15 months under pretrial house arrest.

The lawyer’s prosecution was set to have been the first in-person trial for the coronavirus-era Southern District of New York.

Kuby offered his services pro bono after the trial first scheduled for September was delayed again this month. The trial is now set for Jan. 19, 2021, at 10 a.m. 

Preska and Kaplan did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday afternoon, nor did Rita Glavin, a partner at the private law firm Seward & Kissel whom Kaplan appointed to prosecute Donziger.

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