Steven Donziger: The Man Against the Machine

A David and Goliath story results in a blow for ecological justice...

Steven Donziger: The Man Against the Machine
Steven Donziger pictured at his Pre-Sentencing Rally, Circa 2021 - Photo by Adam Klasfeld

With the world in frenzy over the recent resurgence of COVID-19 in the form of the Omicron variant, it can be easy to overlook other, seemingly less significant happenings. Such is the fate of one Steven Donziger. His story is not unlike that of David and Goliath, although his loss would set a precedent where corporations and courtrooms are separated by nothing more than the dollar. However, to understand the severity of Donziger’s current situation, we must look to his past fights against his Goliath: Chevron.


Donziger began as a journalist following his graduation from American University in 1985 and would perform freelance work in Managua and Nicaragua until attending Harvard Law School in 1988.

After joining the American Bar Association, he would act as a public defender during the first Gulf War in Iraq, where he assisted humanitarian efforts within the conflicting regions by raising awareness about civilian casualties of the War. His reporting would be adopted by the United Nations, which gained the attention of another group shortly after: the Amazon Defense Coalition.

“An Amazon Chernobyl”

Following the ADC’s outreach, Donziger would visit Ecuador to survey the damage caused by the company that would become Chevron-Texaco during their drilling in the Lago Agrio oil fields. Donziger would describe the scene as an “apocalyptic disaster,” a sentiment echoed by those native to the area, who nicknamed the oil fields “the Amazon Chernobyl.”

Beginning in the 1970s, Texaco would partner with PetroEcuador to facilitate drilling operations that continue to this day that would destroy surrounding Amazonian forest areas. For decades, this would cause extreme oil pollution in many of Ecuador’s freshwater lakes.

The oil spills would cover the ground near the fields and significantly degrade the health of those within afflicted areas, including damage to the immune and respiratory systems, increased cancer risk, and general toxicity of groundwater causing a plethora of potentially fatal afflictions.

Photo by Julien Gomba

After Donziger’s return to the US, he would file a class-action lawsuit against Texaco in the stead of 30,000 Ecuadorians within the region, originally suing for 18 billion USD in damages. During the case, Texaco would be bought by Chevron, which then prompted Chevron to leverage the blame onto PetroEcuador, claiming Texaco had cleansed their former area of operations before Chevron purchased Texaco. Chevron would also successfully attempt to move the trial to Ecuador, removing the US’ jurisdiction over the case.

Despite this, Donziger would win a settlement of 9.5 billion USD for the citizens of Ecuador within the afflicted regions, which, while less than originally sought by Donziger, was a massive win for both Ecuadorians and ecological preservation efforts worldwide. However, Chevron would not take the ruling lying down.

Chevron’s Solution

Shortly following the ruling, Chevron would immediately withdraw all of its assets from Ecuador, prompting Donziger and the Ecuadorians to pursue extranational compensation for Chevron’s debts. Canada and Brazil, the two main withdrawal countries, would neglect to hear Ecuador’s case, claiming it to be outside their jurisdiction to enforce.

To this day, Donziger’s plaintiffs have not received any compensation for the trial’s outcome. Chevron did not stop with their refusal to pay, though. Instead, they began one of the most elaborate legal slander campaigns to ever reach the public sphere.

Chevron’s legal action against Donziger began with the filing of a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) suit in 2011, alleging bribery of the presiding judge over the original case, as well as maliciously influencing the final judgment of the case, and “fixing scientific studies” related to the case. Chevron would then remove the damages request from the case, which allowed Chevron to prosecute without a jury. Donziger would argue his right to a jury unsuccessfully, and the case continued with US District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan presiding.

The case rode mainly on the back of testimony from a former Ecuadorian judge, Alberto Guerra. During the trial, he alleged that Donziger paid him under the table for the verdict and that Donziger had “ghostwritten” the judgment before its presentation in court. Later Guerra would claim that he’d been made to lie by Chevron and that changed his testimony at multiple points during the RICO trial. While this information would reframe the public view of the ruling, nothing was done to change the RICO case’s outcome.

After 3 years, Kaplan’s judgment would assert that the Ecuador case’s outcome was invalid due to multiple fraudulent actions on the part of Donziger, including but not limited to coercion, witness tampering, racketeering, and extortion. Despite Chevron not pursuing financial compensation, Kaplan would order Donziger to pay $800,000 to the corporation.

Beating a Dead Lawyer

At this point, Chevron had effectively removed itself from any legal blame or requirement surrounding the Amazon, but it was not the end of Chevron’s legal attacks against Donziger. Following the outcome of the RICO case, Chevron would pursue further legal action against Donziger, claiming that his refusal to submit personal electronic devices of his during the case was grounds for six counts of criminal contempt of court.

The charges were considered so outrageous by the New York legal system that no court would hear the case. Instead, Chevron would use a private law firm to prosecute, which was unheard of in the legal sphere, even if technically within the letter of the law.

In addition to the forcing of the case, Judge Kaplan would appoint Senior District Judge Loretta Preska to oversee the contempt case, which once again bordered on the edges of legality, as random assignment was the norm in most cases.

Preska would sentence Donziger to house arrest during his time awaiting trial, as Preska considered Donziger a flight risk, including wearing a GPS integrated anklet. Donziger would also receive a bail of $800,000, the largest bail for any misdemeanor given in the US before. Once again, the trial would exclude a jury, and Donziger would be assigned a public defense attorney, rather than being allowed his own. Preska would eventually find Donziger guilty on all 6 contempt charges, sentencing him to the maximum of 6 months in prison.

The Precedent of Persuasion

The outcome of Donziger’s case is a blow for ecological justice efforts everywhere. When corporations can control the courts wherever they wish, then there will be no hope for seeking justice for any of the crimes against both Earth and humanity that are perpetrated by said corporations.

Some responses to Kaplan’s case cite Donziger’s “rogue lawyering” as inappropriate, ignoring the havoc wreaked on Ecuador via Chevron’s actions. If we are to allow corporations like Chevron to get away with their destruction of the environment in such a brazen manner through manipulation of the courts, then there will be no stopping them from continuing to seek personal gain at the detriment of all others.

Stephen Donziger sought justice, and the very system that should deliver justice would be his downfall. While Donziger may have been the first to be a victim of corporate courts, he will most definitely not be the last. We must ensure that everyone receives the due process that we all deserve.