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In law school they never bother to tell you that the law is about people.  As law students, we are trained to ignore the story, to extract from endless cases only the most pertinent facts and, most importantly, the black letter law.  Black, without color is what it is, and after awhile all of that blackness can seep into your heart.  Inspired, liberal souls quaking in their first torts class can quickly become "lawyers" in the vile, heartless sense of the profession.  While many law students do survive to make the world a better place - or at least vote Democratic - for every hundred good-hearted lawyers there is a Voldemort.  A company like Chevron can afford to employ seven or eight Voldemorts when attempting to delay a $6 billion dollar judgment in the Ecuadorian Amazon.  Luckily enough, there is a Harry Potter in the jungle and a Dumbledore too.

For twenty-five years, Texaco (now Chevron) painted the jungle black with oil, leaving toxic lagoons to overflow into tributaries of the Amazon River.  Cancer rates are three times higher in the drilling area as compared to other areas in Ecuador.  Many people have become ill or lost their means of subsistence as a result of the contamination.  In 1993, thirty thousand Ecuadorians sued Chevron-Texaco in New York federal court for the full cost of cleanup, estimated at $6 billion dollars.  After ten years, the case was dismissed without trial.  Texaco controlled operations in Ecuador from their U.S. headquarters, sold Ecuadorian oil at U.S. stations and deposited their profits in U.S. banks, but the judge determined that the case had "everything to do with Ecuador and nothing to do with the United States."  By some black magic, the Voldemorts had won.  But, all was not lost...

Steven Donziger, a lawyer working on the original US lawsuit, helped to re-file the case in Ecuador.  Donziger, a Harvard Law graduate is now an advisor for the plaintiff’s Ecuadorian lawyers.  He has spent over a decade working on the case and received little compensation.  It never did pay to be Dumbledore.  Nor does it pay to be "the boy that lived."  Pablo Fajardo, the lead Ecuadorian attorney for the plaintiffs, has probably lived through more than Potter.  Surviving childhood in an oil boomtown was a triumph.  Picture hell: noxious gases, flaming pipes, swarms of murderers, only worse because the Amazon has more mosquitoes than Voldemort himself could conjure.  Faced with insurmountable odds, this is what Fajardo did: finished high school, started a human rights organization, graduated as a computer technician, founded a night school, started a radio program and got a law degree.  A year after he became a lawyer he was asked to be the lead attorney in the $6 billion dollar lawsuit against Chevron.  He did all of this while taking care of his younger siblings and later taking care of his new baby.  And what has Fajardo won?  He cannot afford a car or a house; he has been stalked, threatened and intimidated.  In 2004, an unknown assailant killed his brother, an evangelical minister.

Potter’s Voldemort wanted him dead.  Chevron’s Voldemorts - those who will not be named - want this case dead.  If the judge in Ecuador rules against them, they will appeal to all of the judges of the same court and, losing again, to the Supreme Court of Ecuador.  If they lose there they will say the courts of Ecuador are corrupt and refuse to pay.  Then the case will return to the United States.  Bad guys are so predictable.  The longer Chevron can postpone a judgment, the longer their $6 billion can accumulate interest.  At a rate of two percent a year, the company can afford to spend over $100 million a year on lawyers without any effect on their net worth.  This is the reality of the law.  The best most can do is to buy a hybrid, cheer for the good guys and hope for a happy ending.  The best a lawyer can do is to look in the eyes of their opponents and ask: am I a Potter or a Voldemort?

PostScript: A good indication that you are a Voldemort is when your opponent wins a CNN Heroes award.  If Pablo Fajardo is a hero, what are Chevron’s lawyers?  See for the answer.

Originally posted to doug vilsack on Sun Dec 09, 2007 at 03:12 PM PST.


Do you think a pool of oil in your backyard could give you cancer? (Hint: Chevron says no)

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