MANHATTAN (CN) — After helping indigenous Ecuadorians win a $9.8 billion verdict against Chevron for polluting the Amazon rainforest, Steven Donziger’s decades-long advocacy ended in his disbarment on Thursday.
“No doubt, the serial polluters at Chevron who have spent billions to try to demonize me are dancing in their corporate suites,” Donziger wrote in a statement. “But the battle is far from over. The company still faces enormous risk from its toxic legacy in Ecuador and other countries which will haunt its business operations for decades to come.”
Chevron has long claimed that the multibillion-dollar verdict that Donziger obtained for his Ecuadorian clients was fraudulent, and today’s disbarment ruling relies upon the findings of a U.S. judge who ruled in the oil giant’s favor.
“[Donziger] has been found guilty of egregious professional misconduct,” Justice Judith Gische wrote on behalf of New York’s Appellate Division, First Department.
Roughly three years after the judgment against Chevron, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan blocked Donziger from collecting the proceeds on the grounds that it was “obtained by corrupt means,” including bribery and witness tampering.
Federal prosecutors declined to charge him with any offenses, but Judge Kaplan deputized a private law firm to criminally pursue him for contempt of court, in an extraordinarily rare and controversial for-profit prosecution.
Donziger has maintained his innocence throughout Chevron’s onslaught, winning support of nearly 30 Nobel Prize winners, the European Parliament and bar associations from Canada, Ireland, France, Israel and beyond.
Attorney Martin Garbus, one of the many prominent lawyers to defend Donziger throughout his battle with Chevron, called his client’s disbarment a “horrendous decision” that relies upon a faulty ruling.
“You don’t disbar a courageous human rights lawyer based on a judge’s opinion in a trial held without a jury where the main witness admitted he lied and where the findings have been rejected by courts around the world,” Garbus wrote in a statement.
The appellate court’s ruling overturns the recommendation of the referee who presided over Donziger’s disbarment proceedings: John Horan, a former federal prosecutor who wrote a passionate opinion that the Ecuador crusader should be allowed to continue practicing law.
“Assessment of character is not an exact science, but we can all agree that the essential components are honesty, integrity, and credibility,” Horan wrote in a 36-page report in February. “It is far from clear that [Donziger] is lacking in those qualities as the [grievance] committee argues.”
The appellate judges overturning Horan’s recommendation set it aside in a few short pages.
“This perfunctory decision reads like it was written by a Soviet-era apparatchik carrying out a political function to help a major corporation get rid of its main critic, which is what it does,” wrote Garbus, who once drafted the Czechoslovakian Constitution with that country’s dissident-turned-president Václav Havel.
“It ignores the rights of thousands of Ecuadorian women, men, and children who either were killed or had their lives destroyed by Chevron’s deliberate destruction of the Amazon and who now have by design been deprived of their main advocate.”
Describing Donziger as a “man I greatly admire,” Garbus adds more legal firepower to his client’s cause as the man Jimmy Carter tapped to observe elections in Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Donziger, now stripped of his law license and approaching a year of house arrest, shows no signs of conceding defeat.
“I will continue to advocate for justice in the Ecuador case using all the skills at my disposal,” he wrote. “I will not stop fighting nor will the thousands of dedicated people across the world who have joined this campaign.”
Announcing plans to appeal, the next stop to fight the disbarment ruling would be the New York’s Court of Appeal, the state’s highest court.