Steven Donziger is a lawyer, writer, former journalist and environmental advocate currently known for leading an unrelenting (24 years and counting) legal battle against Chevron Corporation related to its contamination of the Ecuadorian rainforest. Steven has led a variety of international human rights fact-finding and advocacy projects, served as a public defender, and edited a leading text on criminal justice reform. In the Chevron/Ecuador case, his “Herculean tenacity” (Business Week) is often credited with keeping the case on track for 18 years until his clients prevailed in a complex environmental trial and won a $9.5 billion damages judgment. That judgment has since been affirmed on appeal and by Ecuador’s Supreme Court, and Donziger is now part of efforts to enforce that judgment against Chevron’s assets in jurisdictions around the world, including Canada, Brazil, and Argentina. After winning the judgment, Steven was the main target of campaign of retaliatory litigation by Chevron that the company admitted was designed to “demonize” him. To combat the efforts of Steven and his colleagues, Chevron has deployed a team of 60 law firms and more than 2,000 lawyers and consultants, at a cost conservatively estimated at $2 billion. Chevron’s defense is considered the largest and most expensive such effort in the history of the fossil fuel industry.
Landmark Environmental Judgment Against Chevron, With Implications for the Fossil Fuel Industry
The Ecuador judgment is considered a landmark achievement in the history of the corporate accountability and environmental justice movements and is considered by experts to be an extremely significant development for the fossil fuel industry. It represents the first time that a) indigenous groups have held a major oil company accountable in a court of law for extensive pollution; b) that a legal judgment has been entered against an oil company for a large sum of money related to damages in the developing world; and c) that an oil major has been forced to spend massive sums of money on its defense to cover the hiring of dozens of law firms and more than 2,000 legal personnel. The case already has forced a major recalculation of operational risks in the fossil fuel industry, leading to safer drilling practices and fewer investments in delicate ecosystems. This recalculation by the industry of its operational risk is vital to mitigate the impacts of global warming, to preserve indigenous culture in the Amazon rainforest, and to protect the planet for future generations.
Human Rights, the Environment, and Global Warming: Background on the Ecuador Environmental Case
Just out of law school, Steven was a member of the original team of lawyers who in 1993 filed the landmark lawsuit in federal court in New York against Texaco for damages resulting from the deliberate dumping billions of gallons of oil waste into the lands and waterways of Ecuador’s rainforest, decimating indigenous groups and causing an outbreak of cancer and other health problems. The trial took place in Ecuador at Chevron’s request after the company filed 14 sworn affidavits praising the fairness of the country’s courts. In 2011, after the presentation of 106 technical evidentiary reports, a trial court in Ecuador found Chevron guilty of environmental crimes and fraud and imposed an $18.5 billion judgment. The verdict was reduced to $9.5 billion on appeal when the country’s Supreme Court on technical grounds knocked out a punitive damages penalty imposed on Chevron for interfering with the administration of justice in the country. Chevron has refused to pay the judgment – vowing to fight it “until hell freezes over” – which has forced the affected communities to file seizure actions targeting company assets in other jurisdictions. The most advanced of those is in Canada, where the country’s Supreme Court in 2015 unanimously denied a Chevron challenge to the enforcement action and ruled in favor of the villagers in their effort to seize the company’s substantial assets in that country. Independent scientists estimate that thousands of persons in Ecuador have died or are at grave risk of death due to Chevron’s refusal to abide by court orders and clean up its pollution. Steven has called Chevron’s destruction of the rainforest a “modern day environmental Holocaust that kills slowly, efficiently, and quietly.” Evidence also showed that Chevron committed fraud by executing a sham remediation; engaged in an elaborate ruse with its scientists to hide pollution from the court; falsified evidence; bribed a witness to lie; claimed a laboratory it controlled was independent; used junk science to try to minimize the extent of its pollution; and threatened judges if they did not rule in favor of the company.
Steven has served as a spokesperson for his clients on the litigation with major media throughout the world. Some outlets where he has been cited include 60 Minutes with Scott Pelly, Alec Baldwin’s podcast Here’s The Thing, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Toronto Globe & Mail, The Guardian, the Financial Times, Courthouse News, Vanity Fair, and all major newspaper and television outlets in Ecuador.
Chevron’s Corporate Retaliation Campaign
Furious that indigenous groups and their lawyers held the company accountable in Ecuador for decades of toxic dumping and its fraud-based cover-up, Chevron retaliated by hiring hundreds of lawyers and at least 60 law firms to attack adversary counsel and the villagers to evade paying the judgment. Chevron’s SLAPP retaliation campaign was based on an intimidation model intended to silence the company’s critics: it included suing more than 100 people who supported the villagers, including lawyers, journalists, activists, donors, interns and others who had come in contact with the case or had merely expressed support for the accountability campaign of the villagers. One court decision found Chevron violated California’s anti-SLAPP statute, resulting in a major fine against the company. An internal Chevron email written in 2009 disclosed that Chevron’s main long-term strategy was “to demonize Donziger” to distract attention from the company’s misconduct. Chevron actually sued Steven and all 47 of the named plaintiffs for $60 billion under a civil racketeering law in the same New York federal court where the company had refused to conduct the original trial. The potential liability was thought to be the largest in U.S. history, but Chevron dropped all damages claims on the eve of trial, apparently out of fear a jury of impartial fact finders would find in favor of Steven.
The subsequent proceeding was beset with procedural mistakes and resulted in several incorrect findings of fact, as Steven and his appellate counsel Deepak Gupta have documented in this 130-page legal brief. With Chevron’s General Counsel and other top executives barely able to contain their glee while sitting in court, the presiding judge (Lewis A. Kaplan) attacked Steven openly, called the Ecuadorians the “so-called” plaintiffs, denied the defendants a right to a jury, and refused to let Steven and his clients present a complete and proper defense. He also refused to let them litigate their extensive counterclaims against Chevron for engaging in a massive criminal conspiracy in Ecuador to commit environmental crimes and cover it up with fraud. Nationally respected trial attorney John Keker, who represented Steven in the proceeding, said the case under Judge Kaplan’s supervision had “degenerated into a Dickensian farce” forcing him to withdraw. The judge refused to hear any evidence of Chevron’s contamination – he barred any mention of the environment or the humanitarian catastrophe in open court -- and he allowed Chevron to pay a corporate espionage firm to follow and harass Steven and other adversary counsel in New York and in Ecuador. Steven eventually was forced to litigate pro se against Chevron’s team of 114 lawyers. The many flaws of the proceeding, which unfortunately resulted in a decision affirmed by an appellate court with no independent analysis of Judge Kaplan’s findings, has been documented in numerous court filings, including here and here. While 18 judges have ruled in favor of the villagers in whole or in part, including the entire Supreme Courts of both Ecuador and Canada, Judge Kaplan remains the only judge in the world who ruled in favor of Chevron on the facts of the dispute, and he did so largely based on highly questionable evidence presented by the company through a paid and admittedly corrupt witness. Three layers of courts in Ecuador, based on a full evidentiary record and in the country where Chevron accepted jurisdiction, considered and rejected Chevron’s allegations and ruled in favor of Steven and the villagers. It is that decision that is being enforced against Chevron's assets in other jurisdictions.
Cuban Human Rights Refugee Project
In the late 1980s, prior to attending law school, Steven founded Project Due Process, a nationwide pro bono legal project to represent Marielito refugees from Cuba who were being held in indefinite detention by the United States government following the completion of their criminal sentences. Steven organized law students around the country to represent the detainees in immigration hearings conducted by non-lawyer officers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to determine if they could be released pending deportation. In 1987, years of frustration by the detainees boiled over and riots broke out in two federal prisons (Atlanta and Oakdale, LA) where most of them were housed. Steven served as a spokesperson for the Cubans during this time, explaining their plight to the public and casting their indefinite detention as a major human rights violation in an opinion column in the Atlanta Constitution. Steven was asked to speak about the issue on major national news programs, including CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and CNN. He was quoted on the issue of the detainees in publications such as Time, The New York Times, The Atlanta Constitution, the Miami Herald, and others.
In one parish jail in Louisiana, hundreds of detainees began a hunger strike to demand their release. Steven agreed to a request from the warden to help mediate the dispute, which resulted in a peaceful outcome and the return of the INS hearing officers to continue processing cases. Ultimately, after the Obama Administration re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2016, the immigration issue surrounding the Mariel detainees was resolved and the Cuban government agreed to accept deportations for the first times since the boatlift occurred in 1979.
Gulf War Human Rights Project
While a third-year law student at Harvard, Steven and classmate Roger Normand organized an innovative human rights mission to document collateral damage from the first Gulf War under the Geneva Conventions. The mission included lawyers, doctors, public health specialists, and military experts. The Harvard Study Team spent three weeks traveling through all regions of Iraq documenting civilian casualties both via direct bombings of population centers and the destruction of the country’s vaunted health care network, which resulted in dramatic increases in childhood mortality and morbidity. The resulting study [NAME] was made an official document of the United Nations and was translated into five languages. The team’s report was covered in hundreds of media outlets around the world and shed new light on the true cost of war and the ultimate human impacts of bombings of densely populated urban areas such as Baghdad.
The National Criminal Justice Commission
In 1993, Steven was named the founding director of the non-profit National Criminal Justice Commission. Supported by private donations, the Commission was formed under the auspices of the National Center On Institutions and Alternatives. Its goal was to produce a comprehensive study the American criminal justice system with a particular focus on high rates of incarceration and to determine steps that could be taken to both reduce crime, reduce the prison population, and achieve cost-savings for taxpayers. The resulting report, called The Real War On Crime, was published in 1996 as a book (HarperPerennial) with Steven as the editor. The report and its recommendations were in many respects ahead of its time, recommending severe reductions in prison populations and other major reforms that years later were adopted by many states and the federal government to reduce prison populations. Members of the Commission included Edward Levi, the former Attorney General of the United States; Professors Derrick Bell, Charles Ogletree, and James Vorenberg from Harvard Law School; Professor Norval Morris from the University of Chicago School of Law; and Elaine Jones, the Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Steven also wrote extensively about criminal justice in various magazines, including Tikkun.
General Legal Work
Aside from his environmental and human rights work, Steven had taken on numerous other cases. After graduating from law school, he became a trial attorney with the District of Columbia Public Defender Service. During his two years in that office, he represented juveniles accused of crimes and worked in the appeals division. He later worked in private practice as a defense attorney in New York City for Kostelanitz & Fink and noted white-collar attorney Gerald B. Lefcourt.
Prior to entering law school, Steven worked for five years as a professional journalist. His first job after graduating in 1983 from The American University was with United Press International covering local news in the District of Columbia. He then transferred to Nicaragua at the height of the conflict between the U.S.-backed contras and the Sandinista government, working for UPI out of Managua from 1984 to 1986. Steven then became a free-lance journalist in Central America. He filed reports for several newspapers, including The Atlanta Constitution, Christian Science Monitor, Toronto Star, Ft. Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel, and the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.
Steven has appeared on many major media outlets around the world and has lectured extensively in law and graduate schools. Some of the universities where Steven has lectured on legal issues include Harvard, Yale, Columbia, University of California at Berkeley, Duke School of Law, University of Denver’s Sturm School of Law, and the NYU School of Law. He also has spoken on the Ecuador case at the Hay Festival in Wales at the invitation of Patrick Alley of the prestigious non-profit organization Global Witness.