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Lawyer Fights Chevron’s Push for Pre-Trial Verdict

MANHATTAN (CN) - The lawyer who helped secure an $18.2 billion verdict last month against Chevron in an Ecuadorean court says that the oil giant wants to keep him from having a fair trial on the racketeering suit Chevron filed in civil court.

Steven Donziger, a New York-based lawyer, faces charges by Chevron that he obtained the multibillion award by perpetrating a fraud on the Ecuadorean judicial system.

"We are very concerned that Chevron will have Donziger's jury-trial rights taken away," Donziger's defense attorney, John Keker, said at a status conference in Manhattan District Court Tuesday. The lawyer filed a formal demand for a jury trial on Wednesday. Also that day, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan signed an order that grants Donziger and six co-defendants until March 30 to answer Chevron's Feb. 1 lawsuit, which accuses them and several dozen other entities of violating anti-racketeering law.

Last week, Chevron asked Kaplan to bifurcate before the start of trial and rule separately on a declaratory judgment claim against Donziger. The oil company wants Kaplan to decide as soon as possiblke whether Chevron received a due process in Lago Agrio, Ecuador; whether the Lago Agrio court had personal jurisdiction over Chevron; and whether the multibillion-dollar judgment is enforceable.

Kaplan signed an order to show cause on that motion the same day Chevron filed it. Chevron argues that such determinations will "streamline the proceedings because it will eliminate any possible argument that defendants are entitled to delay or derail the trial with the irrelevant and false mudslinging in which they have recently engaged."

At Tuesday's hearing, Keker said that Chevron is trying to avoid facing a jury on key issues. "Mr. Donziger wants a jury trial on the very serious issues of which he is being accused," Keker said.

Keker objected to what he called the "wholesale condemnation" of the Ecuador judicial system, which he said was implicit in Chevron's bifurcation request.

"Decrying the Ecuadorean court system in a vacuum ... seems to use to be wrong," Keker said. "It has trials. It has opposed proceedings. It has judges. It has appeals."

Keker added that Chevron's constant requests to hurry proceedings, and Kaplan's subsequent approvals, have compromised Donziger's defense. In support of this claim, he pointed to Kaplan's recently signed order to show cause, which the judge granted after meeting with Chevron's lawyer ex parte.

Kaplan replied at Tuesday's hearing that meeting ex parte for an order to show cause was "routine" in New York, not improper.

Keker, who is based in San Francisco, said he was not aware of Manhattan's procedures, but said that Chevron needed to be more forthcoming about its plans and allow time for his firm to respond.

About 2.5 weeks ago, Keker filed a 17-page brief accusing Kaplan of harboring a Chevron bias.

Donziger retained Keker on Feb. 17, after Kaplan already had granted Chevron a temporary restraining order barring the Ecuadoreans' judgment-collection efforts. Also, by that point, deadlines had passed for Donziger to file briefs responding to Chevron's allegations.

"Everything that they say almost is disputed, but they've been having their way because there was nobody around to dispute them," Keker said Tuesday.

Kaplan agreed, in part.

"Obviously, there's good sense to much that you are saying," Kaplan replied. But he said that the Ecuadorean co-defendants in the RICO case created the urgency by threatening to collect the judgment outside of America in defiance of his injunction issued last week.

"Most of the defendants are happily announcing that they're paying no attention to that injunction," Kaplan said. "There are ways to make the urgency go away."

Randy Mastro of the law firm Gibson Dunn, Chevron's animated attorney with a flair for the dramatic, did not want to relent on that urgency. He asked Kaplan to deny Keker an extra weekend to file a memorandum against the bifurcation.

Kaplan nevertheless granted the extension, saying it made no "practical difference" to Chevron.

"You can file just as fast as you want," he told Mastro, setting a March 21 deadline.

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