New York Governor Kathy Hochul has portrayed her appointee to the state’s high court, corporate attorney Caitlin Halligan, as some kind of progressive. In a brief statement after the state Senate approved Halligan for the Court of Appeals on April 19, Hochul said her pick “has advocated for tenants, for gun violence prevention, and for equal pay for the soccer players of the US Women’s National Team.”
Hochul’s portrait was incomplete and not completely honest. Halligan spent five years as a partner in a prominent corporate law firm where she had a leading role in representing Chevron during the oil giant’s long, vicious vendetta against environmentalist lawyer Steven Donziger, which ended up by depriving him of his freedom for nearly 1,000 days, including 45 days in a federal prison. He was also stripped of his license to practice law.
Halligan was a partner at the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher from 2014 to 2019. The firm went after Donziger after he and his allies won a landmark pollution case in Ecuador against Chevron in 2013 for contaminating a stretch of rain forest the size of the state of Rhode Island. His legal team represents 30,000 Ecuadorians, mostly Indigenous people and small farmers, who argue that the pollution has caused elevated levels of cancer and other damage in their region.
Donziger responded to her appointment: “Caitlin Halligan’s representation of Chevron against Amazon Indigenous peoples of Ecuador and me as their lawyer was a personal choice that she did not have to make. In my opinion, that reflects a lack of character and a mindset focused first and foremost on personal enrichment at the expense of justice and the health of our planet.”
Halligan did not respond to an effort to solicit her comment.
Halligan participated in Chevron’s anti-Donziger campaign. First, the oil giant ignored the legal results in Ecuador—after failing in three levels of appeal in the court system there. Instead, Chevron retained Gibson, Dunn and brought a case against Donziger and his allies in New York, under the RICO Act, which was designed to prosecute the Mafia. After a long trial, federal District Judge Lewis Kaplan, and not a jury, decided the environmentalists were civilly liable of racketeering, bribery, and fraud. Kaplan’s decision prohibited the Ecuadorians from trying to collect their cleanup costs in American courts. Chevron had already sold its assets in Ecuador, after it apparently sensed that it was losing in the courts there. (More detail on the complicated case is available here and here.)
This is where Halligan enters the scene. Donziger and his allies appealed Kaplan’s decision in the RICO case, and Halligan specializes in appellate briefs. Donziger said in a statement, “Halligan’s choice [to appear for Chevron] went beyond a typical representation in that it involved clearly unethical and even illegal activities by her firm’s litigation team… While I do not expect every past representation of a judicial nominee to be in perfect harmony with the public interest, I do believe Halligan’s deep involvement in this particular representation given its flagrant ethical shortcomings should alone be disqualifying.”
There was another shameful aspect of the Chevron/Gibson, Dunn vendetta—the successful effort to disbar Donziger for his alleged fraud. The New York Bar Association appointed a special officer, John Horan, who conducted a series of public hearings at which Donziger was allowed to defend himself. A phalanx of Gibson, Dunn attorneys also attended—although exactly how they contributed to the case for disbarment is unclear. In the end, Horan found in Donziger’s favor, recommended restoring his law license, and even added: “The extent of [Donziger’s] pursuit by Chevron is so extravagant, and at this point so unnecessary and punitive, [that] while not a factor in my recommendation [it] is nonetheless background to it.”
Horan’s verdict didn’t matter. The Bar Association appealed Horan’s finding and got it reversed eventually by the New York state high court. Donziger was disbarred without any further hearings.
Martin Garbus, the legendary human rights attorney who is part of the Donziger defense team, explained that Halligan could have turned down Gibson Dunn’s request that she join the case against Donziger: “She could have told her partners that she did not want her firm to reverse the judgment of the courts in Ecuador. Any partner of her stature is totally free to follow their own moral compass. No one forces her to do anything she believes is wrong.”
Garbus added: “Being a partner in a law firm does not mean that you give up your beliefs and your morality to represent a client who is trying to jail and disbar a lawyer, a client who is beating down impoverished, helpless Ecuadorians.”
Donziger and his allies have not given up their fight for environmental justice in Ecuador. On April 25, he will mark a year since his restrictions ended, but he still has not gotten his passport back, and so he can’t visit his clients and allies in the South American rain forest.
Meanwhile, his team is sending an appeal to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. They note that in 2021 the council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had found that “the U.S. judiciary had subjected Mr. Donziger to arbitrary detention in violation of multiple provisions of international law,” and it added that “the U.S. government has completely ignored requests by the Working Group to remedy the violations, investigate how they happened, and compensate Mr. Donziger for damages.”