EDITORIAL: Bringing lawyers to justice

Attorneys for a class-action suit are themselves sued

Nothing is quite so unremarkable as seeing a class-action trial lawyer in a Manhattan courtroom, but it’s rare to see one seated at the defendant’s table. A team of lawyers will be in that hot seat Tuesday, defending themselves in a civil racketeering lawsuit brought when they were accused of trying to drill Chevron for $18 billion in Ecuador.

Chevron has been harassed by the trial bar for two decades over the Trans-Ecuadorean oil pipeline, which was built in 1972 by Texaco and state-run Petro Ecuador. Chevron merged with Texaco and assumed its liabilities. The Ecuadorean government that once coveted the prosperity brought in by the pipeline was replaced by radical leftists. Ecuador’s current president, Rafael Correa, is a big fan of the late Hugo Chavez, the leftists’ leftist who was president of Venezuela.

The pipeline was built in full compliance with the laws of Ecuador at the time, so the government retroactively changed the law once it saw an opportunity to loot an American company. Chevron on Tuesday will begin arguing that the 2011 Ecuadorean court judgment was rigged by a team of New York-based trial lawyers led by one Steven Donziger.

The evidence against him, which will be weighed only by the court, is nevertheless compelling. Several of the scientific experts and environmental consultants hired to document Chevron’s environmental misdeeds have since produced depositions, sworn to be true, that reports were submitted to the court under their name arguing the opposite of what they found.

Alberto Guerra, himself a former Ecuadorean judge, admits that he received payments of $1,000 a month for ghostwriting the decisions in the name of Judge Nicholas Zambrano. “During the time that Mr. Zambrano was the judge for the Chevron case,” he testified, “I was handling the proceedings behind the scenes. Mr. Zambrano and I agreed that I would write the court rulings in favor of the plaintiffs.” He even wrote a handful of opinions in Chevron’s favor, just “to avoid suspicion.”

Bank records, daybook entries and copies of the original word-processor files for the rulings that were handed down in the case lend credibility to the claims. In Mr. Guerra’s telling of the tale, Judge Zambrano expected to receive $500,000 once Chevron began paying off the judgment. That’s the sticking point. Chevron declined to make a settlement imposed by judges it believed were corrupt. “Steven Donziger and his co-conspirators fabricated evidence, ghostwrote court reports and even bribed a judge to influence the final judgment against Chevron,” says company spokesman Morgan J. Crinklaw. “We look forward to holding him accountable for his actions.” It sounds like a bad movie.

If the allegations are proved true, the parties responsible for engineering the case in Ecuador deserve to have the law book thrown at them. It’s easy for American trial lawyers to tie up corporations in endless and expensive litigation, especially when foreign countries are involved. It happens often enough to damage the faith Americans have in the justice system. Trial lawyers should get the message that they will pay dearly if they cross the line.

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