[March 21, 2020] Sabbatical update: For obvious reasons, I am home, and not in Africa. Thanks to my wife who booked my return journey from Windhoek to Boston. Stay tuned for a return to normalcy. Meanwhile, #QuarantineLife.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Human life, human rights are the losers in unraveling Chevron-Ecuador litigation

Crude contaminates an open toxic pool in the the Ecuadorean Amazon
rainforest near Lago Agrio.  Photo by Caroline Bennett / Rainforest
Action Network, CC BY-NC 2.0.
[UPDATE, May 24, 2019: SDNY Judge Kaplan yesterday held Donziger in civil contempt.  Read more from Michael I. Krauss at Forbes.]
 
Court rulings are stacking up against the plaintiffs in the global Chevron-Ecuador litigation.  About a month ago, the Dutch Supreme Court, affirming arbitral orders, refused enforcement of the $9.5bn judgment that Ecuadorean courts entered against Chevron, successor to Texaco, for oil pollution at Lago Agrio, feeding into the Amazon River (e.g., AP).  Plaintiffs’ appeals have fared poorly since Canadian courts rejected enforcement earlier in April (e.g., Reuters), piling on adverse outcomes in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina.

Now an opinion headline in Oakland News Now—if atop a column authored by a self-professed “influencer” who decidedly favors Chevron—trumpets that plaintiffs’ attorney “Steven Donziger, … Once The Toast Of Hollywood, Is Now Simply Toast.”  Notwithstanding that dry, I mean wry, assessment, it is true that Donziger was ordered in March 2018 to reimburse Chevron for more than $800,000 in legal fees as part of equitable relief in a private RICO action in the Second Circuit, and subsequently he was pressed to defend his bar license.  He maintains that he and his allies are being victimized in a political-hit orchestrated by Big Oil.

If you’re new to the Chevron-Ecuador case, beware the rabbit hole.  It’s almost impossible to summarize how we’ve come to this point in the course of a quarter century.  The quickly dated 2015 book Law of the Jungle by Paul M. Barrett is still an excellent and objective port of entry (Amazon).  (My co-instructor/spouse and I plan to assign it in our comparative law class in the fall semester.)  You also can read about the case through the columns of George Mason Law Professor Michael I. Krauss at Forbes; he’s followed developments closely over the years.

In short, there was some awful pollution in remote oil fields in Ecuador, reckless extraction and vacant regulation in the 1970s and 1980s wreaking devastating, long-term, far-reaching, and literally downstream consequences to human life and the environment.  That part is hardly in dispute.  What has been less clear and is hotly contested is whom should be blamed.

Enter the polarizing personality of Donziger, Harvard Law ’91, who, it must be said, is a genius for having designed a new model of global environmental litigation.  He solicited wealthy and famous, like, Sting famous, investors to raise money for the high costs of litigating against transnational Big Oil behemoths in an effort to tame them with the rule of domestic law.  At what point Donziger’s litigation lost the moral high ground—somewhere between the get-go and never—is the subject of much speculation.  However, that corruption was rampant in Ecuadorean courts is beyond dispute, and the role of the lawyer when justice might require, say, cash prepayment of a new “court fee,” raises some thorny questions in ethics and cultural relativism.  What is for sure is that when you start talking about Big Oil as occupying the moral high ground, something already has gone terribly wrong.

One can only make an informed guess about where liability for Lago Agrio should land.  Texaco/Chevron probably bears a slice of moral, if not legal, responsibility, at least in a strict-liability, “Superfund” sense.  But through an unascertainable and poisonous mix of lax regulation, corruption, foolhardy assumption of responsibility, and their own recklessness practices, the state of Ecuador and its state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in oil extraction were vastly enriched and probably bear principal responsibility for the disaster, morally and legally.  Arguable then is how thoroughly moral responsibility should flow back to the industrialized world along the pipeline of oil demand; I won’t step into those inky depths.

Donziger and the Ecuador litigation is a capstone course for law school, so I’m not here to state a thorough explication.  I mention the case because it strikes me that it exemplifies two serious problems in contemporary tort law, intersecting on this unusual tangent.

The first problem is that both state actors and transnational corporations operate above domestic law and without accountability to private claimants in international law, and that portends a disastrous end to life on earth.  What ought not be forgotten about the Chevron-Ecuador legal fiasco is that underneath all of the legal finger-pointing, there remains an unmitigated environmental catastrophe.  And what’s worse, it’s ongoing.  Ecuadorean operations in the area still use reckless extraction processes such as unlined oil pits, and Big Oil is bidding to reclaim a piece of the action.  People are still being poisoned, and the Amazon is still being polluted.

Meanwhile, follow the oil downstream, and Hasan Minhaj will show you (embedded below) how Brazil is newly doubling down on rain forest destruction.  I’m talking about the good old-fashioned, small-animals-fleeing-for-their-lives-from-set-fires-and-bulldozers kind of destruction that was the stuff of my childhood nightmares in the dark age before we recycled.  Human civilization and our rule of law on earth have not yet figured a way to attack this problem on the international level, much less to protect the human rights of local citizens within an offending country.  Our own alien tort statute was recently defanged vis-à-vis transnational corporations—in a case about Big Oil, by the way—and it’s not clear that the law’s landmark 1980 application in Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, bringing a foreign state torturer to justice, would even be upheld in federal court today.


The second problem is that in places where we do observe the rule of law, namely, here in the United States, legal transaction costs have spiraled so high that our courts have become available only as playgrounds for the rich and powerful, whether to settle disputes among themselves, subsidized by us, or to quash the claims that we, the little people, might dare to file in our puny arrogance.  We know this problem on the mundane, ground level as “access to justice.”  I suggest that this is the same problem that Donziger—giving him the benefit of the doubt at the get-go, for the moment, assuming reasonably that his multitude of motives must at least have included compassion for victims of pollution among the world’s poorest people—was up against in trying to take on Big Oil.  Documents in the RICO case contain tidbits about Donziger’s financing, such as a rock star’s “two equity positions in the case, one for 0.076 percent and 0.025 percent.”  It turns my stomach to read about human rights litigation as an investment opportunity, perhaps ripe for an initial public offering.  (“Call now for your free report; first time callers can get a free tenth-ounce Silver Walking Liberty Coin!”)  If that’s how we’re setting legal norms around human rights and deterring threats to human life, then that says more about us than it does about Steven Donziger.

These are the days that I want to give up on the human experiment and hunker down in willful ignorance to marshal my resources and plan for a contented retirement.

Though I’m a little short on resources.  Can I still buy shares in that Roundup litigation?

Monday, May 20, 2019

The summer beach read you've been looking for:
Don Herzog on 'Defaming the Dead'


Looking for the perfect gift for that tort lover in your family?  The perfect read for the beach this summer?  Look no farther.  Pick up Don Herzog’s Defaming the Dead (Yale University Press 2017).

Herzog, a law professor at the University of Michigan, published this odd delight.  He makes a cogent argument against the common law rule prohibiting defamation actions predicated on injury to the reputation of the dead.  I was skeptical: a whole book about this little common law trivium?  Turns out, the history of defamation and the dead is compelling: at times bizarre, thought-provoking, and often funny, especially in Herzog’s capable conversational style.

Do you care what people say about you after you die?  It’s human nature to put a lot of thought into the future beyond your lifespan.  But it doesn’t really matter.  You won’t be here to be injured by defamation, nor gratified by its omission.  And if you’ve moved on to a heavenly (or other) afterlife, why would you care what mortals are saying back on earth?  Sometimes we imagine that we care about the future because we want happiness for our survivors.  But we won’t be here to know whether they have it, so is the interest really ours, or theirs?  Should the law protect either?  These problems, which Herzog posits in the beginning of the book, force some deep thought about what we want to accomplish with tort law—e.g., compensation, deterrence, anti-vigilantism—and accordingly, how we think about tort’s elements—duty, breach, causation, and injury—in the context of dignitary harms.

To oversimplify, Herzog pits what he calls “the oblivion thesis”—you can’t assert legal rights from beyond—against the Latin maxim and social norm, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, loosely meaning, “speak no ill of the dead.”  Common law defamation observes the first proposition, while as to the second, Herzog cautions: “No reason to think that just because it’s stated in Latin and has an imposing history, it makes any sense.”

Yet as Herzog then well demonstrates, we observe the Latin maxim in American (and British) common law in all kinds of ways.  The law’s purported disinterest in protecting reputations of the dead never became a rule in criminal libel.  And 19th century precedents that excluded post mortem defamation recovery seem to have been motivated by the same illogic that survival statutes were meant to redress.

Meanwhile we recognize a range of legal interests that appear to reject the oblivion thesis:  We honor the intentions of the dead in trusts and estates.  Attorney and medical privileges can survive death, even as against the interests of the living.  In intellectual property, copyright and publicity rights survive death, and trademark discourages disparagement of the dead.  Privacy in the federal Freedom of Information Act protects survivors by way of the decedent’s personal rights.  And Herzog devotes an entire riveting chapter to legal prohibitions on—and compensations for—corpse desecration.

Whether or not you’re convinced in the end that the common law rule on defaming the dead should yield, Herzog’s tour of the field is a worthwhile interrogation of much more than defamation, and much more than tort law.  His thesis unpacks the fundamental question of who we think we are, if we are so much more than the sum of our carbon compounds; and how that understanding of our personhood is effected and perpetuated by our most curious construct: the rule of law.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Boston Globe presses high court for access to secret criminal hearings

In fall 2018, the Spotlight team at The Boston Globethat Spotlight team—published a powerful exposé on "secret courts" (limited free access) in Massachusetts criminal justice.  Now a related case, argued May 7, is pending before the Commonwealth's Supreme Judicial Court.

Julian Assange supporters' sign in front of Ecuador embassy, London, Aug.
22, 2012 (by wl dreamer, CC BY-SA 3.0).
Secret courts are the zombie of First Amendment access in the judiciary. We kill them in constitutional litigation, think they're dead, and suddenly your state courts have been infected and overrun by a whole new horde.  More often than not, new secret court systems blossom to protect the rich and powerful—infamously such as one-time GE CEO Jack Welch whilst in divorce court—from the public scrutiny that attaches to the rest of us dregs, when anyone cares to look. That correlation makes secret courts' resilience a peculiarly American counterweight to our tradition of public justice in open courtrooms.

Yet I put "secret courts" in quotation marks, because it's not clear exactly what are these secret proceedings exposed by the Spotlight team.  They're called "show cause hearings" in Massachusetts law, but even the term "hearing" seems generous.  Under state law, in the absence of an arrest, a criminally accused is entitled to a "hearing" before the court clerk to determine whether charges should issue.  That means the clerk is second-guessing police before the case actually reaches court.

This happens tens of thousands of times per year, the Globe reported.  These "hearings" are not docketed and may leave no paper trail, so if charges are not filed, there is no official record left behind.  The statute that authorizes these hearings pertains principally to misdemeanors, but may be and is used for felony charges, too, in about one in eight hearings, the Globe reported.  The statute itself does not require secrecy, but that's how the process has shaken out.  The Supreme Judicial Court approved secrecy in these hearings, likening them in a 2007 decision to historically secret grand jury proceedings.  But these show cause hearings much more resemble the California preliminary criminal hearings that the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1986 must be open presumptively to the public under the First Amendment.

While the ostensible purpose of this process is to protect the reputation of accused persons while weeding out frivolous claims, it seems many clerks have turned these hearings into an ADR process.  Keeping the accused's name off the records is a bargaining chip to leverage apologies, restitution, or an informal kind of probation.  Outcomes in this vein can be positive for victim and accused; there's no disputing that.  But Spotlight also documented victims of crime and violence who felt their experiences were devalued in secret leniency.  No-charge results have proven problematic especially when emboldened accused persons have gone on to commit violent offenses.

And it's worse than that.  Because as tends to happen in secret justice, persons of privilege—wealth, political clout, social connections, mere representation by a lawyer, which is not required before charges, and maybe mere whiteness, based on disparate-impact statistics, according to Globe research—has a lot to do with what charges get weeded out without a record being made.  Moreover, the Globe reported:

The state’s 68 clerk magistrates at District and Boston Municipal courts operate with enormous discretion to halt criminal proceedings even though many have slender qualifications: About 40 percent of clerks and their assistants ... lack law degrees, one clerk magistrate did not go to college at all, and another has only an associate’s degree.

Often to the frustration of police, some clerks reject charges in big numbers.  "In 2016 and 2017, nearly 82 percent of cases never made it out of a secret hearing in Chelsea," the Globe reported.

Bills pending in the legislature would require a presumption of openness in these proceedings.  But the ACLU of Massachusetts, Greater Boston Legal Services, and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau all come down on the side of privacy for accused persons.  This is an old story; the ACLU has been torn famously over access and privacy.  I don't mean to be access-absolutist about this, either.  In my view, a big part of the problem stems from our society's overuse of the criminal justice system (read: drug crime) paired with excessive, punitive consequences for criminal-justice involvement (cf. Ban the Box).

1780 Massachusetts Constitution
In the case now pending before the Supreme Judicial Court, the Globe seeks access to records of show-cause hearings in which no charges issued.  The Globe reasons that these court hearings cannot be erased utterly from the public sphere.  That logic is backed up by the Supreme Court's 1986 treatment of California preliminaries, in which media sought records after the fact of closed hearings, as well as clear circuit precedent in the intervening years condemning secret dockets as antithetical to constitutional access to information.  The Commonwealth argued on behalf of trial courts to uphold the grand-jury analogy, reasoning that properly closed hearings yield properly closed records.

I would like to see the SJC take into account that the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights is more expansive than the First Amendment.  Before the First Amendment was even a thing, the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution (my italics) recognized:

Art. XVIII. A frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the constitution, and a constant adherence to those of piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty and to maintain a free government. The people ought, consequently, to have a particular attention to all those principles, in the choice of their officers and representatives; and they have a right to require of their lawgivers and magistrates an exact and constant observation of them, in the formation and execution of the laws necessary for the good administration of the commonwealth.

The case is Boston Globe Media Partners LLC v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court, No. SJC-12681.  Watch the oral argument online at Suffolk Law.

Monday, May 13, 2019

UMass Law grads honor service tradition, will maintain top-3 Mass. bar pass rate with Harvard, BU

Photos and tweets from today's Commencement at UMass Law.

Photo of stage by UMassD_Alumni. Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Elspeth Cypher (read more), honorary degree recipient, at right, first row, second from left.  I'm three rows behind her.
Professor and former Dean Phil Cleary (who can count Mass. tort law among his many talents), respected faculty senior, hoods the youngest member of the class.  Thurgood Marshall-award-winning dad Jesse Purvis looks on.  Photo by UMassLaw.
My tweets in time sequence:



Now it's off to a faculty committee meeting. The busy work is never done! 🐝

Sunday, May 12, 2019

'Ink' splashes journalism's muck on public stage

Bertie Carvel and Jonny Lee Miller
Saturday I saw Ink, by British playwright James Graham, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York.  I wanted to see Ink primarily to fan-boy Jonny Lee Miller.  I’ve idolized him since he appeared alongside Ewan McGregor in the brilliant 1996 Danny Boyle film adaptation of Ian Welsh’s Trainspotting.  I fell in love with him all over again as the reimagined Sherlock Holmes of U.S. CBS’s Elementary, the longest-ever screen-time run of an actor in the role and complement to Lucy Liu’s equally landmark portrayal of Watson.

As newspaper editor Larry Lamb, Miller live was all that I dreamed.  His jaunty spirit and dark-edge demeanor gave life to the tidal forces of moral conflict that tore Lamb apart as he labored under Australian upstart Rupert Murdoch—played by Bertie Carvel, who has owned the role to deserved acclaim since Ink’s debut at the London Almeida and then the West End—to reinvent news in the British tabloid Sun, circa 1970.

I don’t want to give away too much of the play’s awestriking climaxes, so I’ll only mention that one moment comprises a thundering explosion of physicality by Miller as Lamb, as he literally pounds his newspaper vision into reality over union workers’ refusal to roll the presses.  Miller seemed to be losing his voice by the matinee’s end, and my wife and I wondered that he could pull off this exhausting feat a second time that day, much less eight times per week.  Ink opened on Broadway in April and was just extended to July 7.

Playwright James Graham
speaks at his alma mater
University of Hull in 2018.
(By Robin S. Taylor
CC BY-SA 4.0.)
To my giddy delight, Ink delivered so much more than a stellar cast.  Mansfield-born James Graham is an accomplished writer of stage, TV, and film, and he’s evidenced an award-winning capacity to grapple with social issues through context.  (His film adaptation of Mikey Walsh’s Romany-expose memoir Gypsy Boy is in pre-production.)  Graham’s socially provocative Privacy in 2014 was informed by the Edward Snowden affair, and Daniel Radcliffe joined the cast for its New York debut in 2016.  With Privacy, though, lukewarm reviews suggested that Graham modestly missed the mark, giving audiences angst, but not much that was new.  He might have bitten off more than he could chew by trying to tackle a subject of such wide-ranging complexity.

If Privacy was Graham’s faltering early exploration of the social landscape, Ink is his finished dissertation.  I knew Ink would be about the birth of modern tabloid journalism—the less modern iteration being the Hearst-Pulitzer yellow journalism of the 1890s, another turning point in the history of news, evidencing my journalism professors’ admonition that nothing ever happens for the first time.  I did not understand before I went that Ink is calculated as a commentary on our present-day problem of “fake news,” or, otherwise packaged, the consumer-driven, 24-hour news cycle that undoubtedly represents another centennial shift in the enterprise of journalism and signifies to many a circular cause and symptom of moral decay in human civilization.

Set principally in 1969, Graham’s play never mentions “fake news” in modern terms.  But it does talk about populism, and therein lies Graham’s clever contextualization.  He locates Murdoch’s revolutionary arrival on the global media scene relative implicitly to the Fox Corporation of 2019, five decades hence, and at the same time relative explicitly to the spilling of populism onto the world stage in 1939, three decades earlier.

Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu talk Elementary at San Diego Comic-Con in
2012.  (By Genevieve CC BY 2.0.)
As the cast discussed on stage in a talk after the show on May 11, an insightful feature of Graham’s Murdoch and Lamb arises in their portrayal as protagonists.  Part of you roots for them to succeed in overturning the staid paternalism of post-World War II journalism.  Fleet Street had become entangled with elitism, arguably peddling news as nothing more meaningful than a new opiate for the masses.  Media had fallen out of touch with the everyday plight of the working classes that post-war chroniclers had purported to protect with anti-establishment bulwarks.  Sound familiar?

Lamb’s fall reminds us that the shortest path from Cronkite-esque public servant to Alex-Jones-town social menace is more slippery slope than cliff-edge drop.  Murdoch is the devil to Lamb’s Doctor Faustus, and one must remember that the devil was not really the villain of that story.  Protagonist and antagonist at once, Faustus was everyman.

Graham artfully traced the unraveling of countless threads in social policy in Ink’s Sorkin-paced script.  Almost in the play’s background, the aforementioned union press workers evolve from butt of ridicule to moral compass as Lamb loses his grip.  Characters’ commentary collateral to the business of newspapering portends the looming behemoth of television, à la Marshall McLuhan.  Lamb’s dogged insistence that absolute freedom of information is the best way to save the life of kidnapped Muriel McKay evokes pondering of Julian Assange’s access-to-information fundamentalism, such as birthed Wikileaks.

Front and center, the advent of the Murdochian media empire, portrayed in Ink, posits a simple question that has haunted ethicists since the construction of the Fourth Estate:  Is the role of journalism in a democracy to give the public what it needs or what it wants?


 Elementary s7 premieres May 23 on CBS.