Fossil Fuel Connected Judge Says Oil Industry Not Liable For Destroying Gulf Coast

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While much of the attention paid to the Gulf Coast in recent years has focused on BP’s destruction of the Gulf of Mexico and the coastline, it is important to remember that the fossil fuel industry has been polluting the South for decades.

In fact, the problem is so bad that the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed a lawsuit against 97 fossil fuel companies two years ago to force them to pay for the destruction that they have caused to the Louisiana coast.

The lawsuit seemed almost doomed from the start: Republican Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed legislation in 2014 that forbade the lawsuit from moving forward, but this legislation was later ruled unconstitutional and thrown out.

As Climate Progress points out, the growing concern among Louisiana citizens is that their coastline is disappearing: More than 1,900 square miles of coast line has vanished in the last 85 years, and the fossil fuel industry has been responsible for polluting what’s left. The industry has even admitted it is responsible for at least 36% of the total wetland loss in the state of Louisiana. The State Department estimates that the wells drilled by the dirty energy industry are destroying as much as 59% of the coast.

An admission of liability, hard facts, and the protection of the public’s well being should have been enough to make this case a slam-dunk for any seasoned attorney. Unfortunately, the dirty energy industry has powerful connections all over the South – from politicians to judges – and those connections have resulted in the dismissal of the lawsuit.

In mid-February, U.S. District Judge Nanette Jolivette Brown tossed the suit, after the industry successful lobbied to have the case moved from a state judge to a federal judge. This action, known as venue-shopping, allows a defendant to search for a more friendly judge before the case is heard, and Judge Brown is about as friendly with the industry as a judge ever could be.

Before her appointment to a federal judgeship by President Obama (confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate), Judge Brown spent decades as a corporate attorney, working for firms that regularly represented the dirty energy industry in matters of environmental litigation.

During her time in practice, she worked at the law firms of Adams & Reese, the Onebane Law Firm, Milling, Benson, & Woodward, and the Chaffe McCall law firm. The McCall firm’s website says the following about its oil and gas representation:

Seventy-five years before the first commercial production of Oil and Gas in Louisiana, Chaffe McCall made its mark in the Louisiana legal field.  Since early in the twentieth century, the firm has been sought out by clients in all aspects of the Oil and Gas industry.  Our attorneys are thoroughly conversant with state and federal regulations of natural resources and the environment. 

Meanwhile, Adams & Reese boast the following about its oil and gas litigation department:

Whether advising an oil and gas operator, marine transportation company, offshore supply company, drilling contractor or a barge line, the Adams and Reese Oil and Gas Practice Team is strategically located along the Gulf South to provide legal services for exploration and production, as well as marine transportation, in the Gulf of Mexico and adjoining inland waterways.

And it wasn’t that she just happened to be at a firm that represented the industry. After all, not every attorney at a law firm handles every case and represents all clients.

But Judge Brown’s credentials specifically say that she “specialized” in environmental litigation, meaning that she sat in a courtroom and defended the very people that she just handed a massive legal victory. If she had even a shred of dignity, she would have recused herself from the case due to the massive conflict of interest.

The industry is getting out of a potential $50 billion penalty because it successfully pulled the case out of the state courts and into the hands of an old friend.

Farron Cousins is the executive editor of The Trial Lawyer magazine, and his articles have appeared on The Huffington Post, Alternet, and The Progressive Magazine. He has worked for the Ring of Fire radio program with hosts Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Mike Papantonio, and Sam Seder since August 2004, and is currently the co-host and producer of the program. He also currently serves as the co-host of Ring of Fire on Free Speech TV, a daily program airing nightly at 8:30pm eastern. Farron received his bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of West Florida in 2005 and became a member of American MENSA in 2009.  Follow him on Twitter @farronbalanced.

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