“If a state like New York can bend and twist legal concepts like that of securities fraud to carry on an essentially political vendetta against a corporate enemy, how safe are other businesses?” My new Cato post reports on a judge’s scathing rejection of a case that should never have been brought, the New York Attorney General’s attempt to hang fraud charges on Exxon over its statements on climate change.
- I was part of an informative panel discussion of “Climate Change Litigation and Public Nuisance Lawsuits” organized by the Rule of Law Defense Fund [watch here] Podcast and transcript of an October update on state and municipal climate litigation with Boyden Gray [Federalist Society] And because it’s still relevant, my 2007 WSJ piece (paywalled) on how contingency fees for representing public-sector plaintiffs are an ethical travesty;
- New York securities case against ExxonMobil goes to trial [Daniel Fisher, Legal Newsline; earlier] At last minute, NY Attorney General Letitia James, successor to Eric Schneiderman, drops the two counts requiring proof of intent, which the state had earlier deployed to accuse Exxon of deliberate misrepresentation. Still in play is the state’s unique Martin Act, which allows finding fraud without proof of intent [Nicholas Kusnetz, Inside Climate News]
- Ninth Circuit panel hears “children’s” climate case, Juliana v. U.S. [Federalist Society podcast with James May, Damien Schiff, and Jonathan Adler; related commentary, James Coleman]
- Bernie Sanders doesn’t really need legal arguments for retroactive criminal prosecutions if he’s got Jacobin on his side, right?
- “Lawyers are unleashing a flurry of lawsuits to step up the fight against climate change” [Darlene Ricker, ABA Journal]
- Who’s backing Extinction Rebellion, the lawbreaking group that blocked intersections in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere this fall? “The answer, in part, is the scions of some of America’s most famous families, including the Kennedys and the Gettys.” [John Schwartz, New York Times]
The litigation campaign had previously recruited several California cities and New York City, and now three local governments in Colorado, the City of Boulder, Boulder County, and San Miguel County, are joining in demanding recoupment of moneys spent because of climate change. I’m quoted in Michael Sandoval’s account in Western Wire:
Walter Olson, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, told Western Wire that besides pushing for settlement, an additional objective is implementing new regulation via the courts, rather than legislation or administrative rulemaking….
The multi-state, multi-pronged approach is key, Olson said, given the differences between states on everything from recovery to discovery procedures.
“The strategy in these cases is typically to recruit as many plaintiffs as possible, with an emphasis on actions in different states. States have, e.g., different consumer laws to sue under that may allow different theories of recovery, or different procedures each of which may place the defendants at some particular kind of disadvantage,” Olson said….
“Typically the government plaintiffs are offered a deal of ‘no fee unless successful,’ just as in the ads on late-night TV,” Olson said….
Olson said that the approach in Colorado may be slightly different, given the reaction to the lawsuits filed in California and New York City that have been viewed simply as money-grabs.
“The first wave of these climate suits have gotten a reputation in the press as organized by law firms seeking contingency fees who intend to run the actions for maximum cash payout,” Olson said. “Involving EarthRights and a community like Boulder could be an effort to change this image by introducing more of an idealistic non-profit tone and maybe a suggestion that the goal isn’t just to squeeze money out in a settlement and then return to business as usual, which is basically what happened with the tobacco settlement,” he concluded.
I also mention that speculative litigation of this sort is made vastly easier by our lack of a loser-pays rule.
A very different view — and one with which, needless to say, I disagree — from the Niskanen Center, which is participating in the suits.
- Biggest recruit yet for climate recoupment suits: NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio sues blaming five oil companies for Superstorm Sandy [Seth Barron/City Journal, John Timmer/ArsTechnica, WSJ; Stephen Bainbridge on parallel divestment effort]
- California cities/counties suing oil companies: climate change will be our ruin. Same cities/counties selling bonds to investors: risk? what risk? [Andrew Scurria/WSJ; John O’Brien/Forbes] Santa Cruz joins several other Bay Area counties in action [Nicholas Ibarra, Santa Cruz Sentinel]
- Can’t spell “Oedipal” without “O-i-l”: Rockefeller heirs bankroll #ExxonKnew crusade against great-granddad’s company [Reeves Wiedeman, New York mag]
- Same article takes disbelieving tone about possibility that state AGs’ campaign might trample anyone’s First Amendment rights [memory refresher] More about that in this Margaret (Peggy) Little and Andrew Grossman 2016 Federalist Society podcast and my Twitter thread about it;
- National Association of Manufacturers launches legal initiative to push back against industrywide and attorney-general tort, nuisance, and public-recoupment suits, notably on climate and lead paint [John Siciliano, Washington Examiner; Linda Kelly, The Hill; NAM’s Manufacturing Accountability Project and its coverage of the art of “climate attribution,” the early failed Kivalina suit (more on which), origins of Global Warming Legal Action Project]
- Pssst, Vice — in profiling Steve Berman you might want to be aware that a few other attorneys claim some minor role in also having “won a $200 billion settlement from tobacco companies in the 90s” [compare claims of lawyers organizing opioid suits]
“Warning to Corporate Counsel: If State AGs Can Do This to ExxonMobil, How Safe Is Your Company?” Prof. John Baker in the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy, excerpt:
Nation-states have long fought wars for control of oil. In a novel development, American states are now fighting a war over control of oil—not with one state attempting to take oil from another, but with some states attempting to deny its use to other states. In 2015, New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, began an investigation of ExxonMobil. Then, at a news conference held in New York City on March 29, 2016, Schneiderman said that he and a group of other attorneys general were looking at “creative legal theories” to bring about “the beginning of the end of our addiction to fossil fuel.” The group is comprised of seventeen attorneys general, representing fifteen states, the District of Columbia, and one territory. Opposing these attorneys general from mostly “blue states” are attorneys general from twenty-seven mostly “red states.”
We’ve covered one angle of the investigation — its attempt to attach legal consequences to wrongful climate advocacy, and use subpoena power to investigate advocates — at length. Baker writes about many others, including the murky origins of the multi-state investigation and related professional responsibility questions, Exxon’s subdued public response, and the prospect of an ideological “War Between the States.”
At the Federalist Society blog, Margaret (Peggy) Little, practicing attorney and director of The Federalist Society’s Pro Bono Center, has published a summary and analysis (parts one, two) of the ongoing criminal investigation of Exxon and its relations with dozens of advocacy groups, university scholars, trade associations and others with whom it is said to have collaborated in the supposedly improper cause of climate “denial.”
As one of the shrewdest analysts of the outrageous tobacco litigation saga, Little is particularly well situated to spot the parallels:
…Nearly every speaker [at the “AGs United for Clean Power” press conference] expressly cited the state AGs’ successful victory over the tobacco industry as a template for this action. One AG called upon other countries, states, communities and individuals to join in this effort. Why the public announcement before the facts come in? Why the global call to arms by this minority of state AGs?
An alert observer will recognize that this press conference follows right on the heels of drastic fiscal crises in many states. The state AGs’ wildly successful settlement with the tobacco industry in the 1990s –which incidentally also deployed foreign countries, dissenting states, cities, towns and health insurers to amass industry-busting claims– shifted a quarter of a trillion dollars to the states and their attorneys, leading to fiscal and governmental bloat that, to borrow a term from the climate activists, is unsustainable. New targets need to be identified and demonized so that this state regulatory confiscation from private industry can continue.
Another echo is the role of private law firms angling for what could be stupendously large contingency fees, a phenomenon that was the driving force of the state tobacco litigation. Little notes the role of prominent class action and tort firm Cohen Milstein, which “has a state AG practice headed by partner Linda Singer, former AG of the District of Columbia. The New York Times has profiled [its] solicitation of state AGs to bring class action and mass tort suits.” Another private attorney involved in the new affair, Matt Pawa, is likewise deep in contingency-fee representations of state attorneys general to pursue ostensibly governmental claims in which public officials would ordinarily be expected not to take a personal financial interest. If the AGs’ press conference was characterized by “hot,” accusatory, prejudicial rhetoric more often associated with plaintiff’s lawyers than with professional prosecutors, this might be why, Little notes.
She also makes clear the deep political illegitimacy and unaccountability of the regulation-through-litigation Fourth Branch these suits are intended to set up:
These extortionate suits are cynically Made to Settle. Professor G. Robert Blakey, a RICO consultant engaged by the Department of Justice to plan the federal tobacco lawsuit, frankly admitted, “this case is not made to win, it’s made to settle.” Both the state and its contingency fee outside financiers are thus in a position to reap enormous rewards with no risk of judicial precedents that would stem the tide of other, like initiatives against other industries. A state is a subsidized political plaintiff, driven by interest groups and ideology and its officers’ political ambitions; it can afford to bring a weak case and pursue it more vigorously than could any private plaintiff. Further, the arsenal of remedies at its disposal—consent decrees, injunctive relief, enforcement powers available under its consumer protection, trade practices and antitrust statutes—are simply not available to a private tort plaintiff. All of which underscores why these contingency arrangements violate the targets’ due process rights.
I wrote a whole book in 2003 — The Rule of Lawyers — on the pretensions of this emerging Fourth Branch of litigators and why they were not consistent with American self-government. For a while — as one after another attempt at a “next tobacco,” from guns to soft drinks, failed to take off — it looked as if maybe our system had learned the lesson and that the scandals would not repeat. If only that were so!
I joined guest host Steve Simpson on Blog Talk Radio’s Yaron Brook Show, along with guests Sam Kazman (CEI) and Alex Epstein (“The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels”) to discuss the free speech threat of attorney general climate denial investigations (“AGs United for Clean Power”). Related, and recent: “Is Eric Schneiderman colluding with other AGs in an illicit war on Exxon?” [New York Post editorial) Investigation “a flatly unconstitutional assault on speech the state dislikes. I find something terrifying in the notion” [Stephen Carter, Bloomberg View] “While I think that climate change is both human-caused to a significant extent and likely to be a problem, I would warn my environmentalist friends about the dangerous precedent the attack on CEI sets.” [Eli Lehrer, Washington Examiner] “The Climate Police Escalate” [WSJ editorial]
The campaign to attach legal consequences to supposed “climate denial” has now crossed a fateful line:
The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) today denounced a subpoena from Attorney General Claude E. Walker of the U.S. Virgin Islands that attempts to unearth a decade of the organization’s materials and work on climate change policy. This is the latest effort in an intimidation campaign to criminalize speech and research on the climate debate, led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and former Vice President Al Gore….
The subpoena requests a decade’s worth of communications, emails, statements, drafts, and other documents regarding CEI’s work on climate change and energy policy, including private donor information. It demands that CEI produce these materials from 20 years ago, from 1997-2007, by April 30, 2016.
CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman said the group “will vigorously fight to quash this subpoena. It is an affront to our First Amendment rights of free speech and association.” More coverage of the subpoena at the Washington Times and Daily Caller.
A few observations:
- If the forces behind this show-us-your-papers subpoena succeed in punishing (or simply inflicting prolonged legal harassment on) groups conducting supposedly wrongful advocacy, there’s every reason to think they will come after other advocacy groups later. Like yours.
- This article in the Observer details the current push to expand the probe of climate advocacy, which first enlisted New York AG Eric Schneiderman and then California’s Kamala Harris, into a broader coalition of AGs, with Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands just having signed on. More than a dozen others, such as Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, seem to be signaling support but have not formally jumped in. More: Peggy Little, Federalist Society.
- CEI people, many of them longtime friends of this site, have been active critics of the Schneiderman effort, with Hans Bader, a senior attorney there, highly critical just a week ago.
- In these working groups of attorneys general, legal efforts are commonly parceled out among the states in a deliberate and strategic way, with particular tasks being assigned to AGs who have comparative advantage in some respect (such as an unusually favorable state law to work with, or superior staff expertise or media access). Why would one of the most politically sensitive tasks of all — opening up a legal attack against CEI, a long-established nonprofit well known in Washington and in libertarian and conservative ideological circles — be assigned to the AG from a tiny and remote jurisdiction? Is it that a subpoena coming from the Virgin Islands is logistically inconvenient to fight in some way, or that local counsel capable of standing up to this AG are scarce on the ground there, or that a politician in the Caribbean is less exposed to political backlash from CEI’s friends and fans than one in a major media center? Or what?
- I recommend checking out the new Free Speech and Science Project, which intends to fight back against criminalization of advocacy by, among other things, organizing legal defense and seeking to hold officials accountable for misusing the law to attack advocacy.
- This is happening at a time of multiple, vigorous, sustained legal attacks on what had been accepted freedoms of advocacy and association. As I note in a new piece at Cato, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just demanded that the Securities and Exchange Commission investigate several large corporations that have criticized her pet plan to impose fiduciary legal duties on retirement advisors, supposedly on the ground that it is a securities law violation for them to be conveying to investors a less alarmed view of the regulations’ effect than they do in making their case to the Labor Department. This is not particularly compelling as securities law, but it’s great as a way to chill speech by publicly held businesses.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is pursuing an investigation of the Exxon Corporation in part for making donations to think tanks and associations like the American Enterprise Institute and American Legislative Exchange Council, which mostly work on issues unrelated to the environment but have also published some views flayed by opponents as “climate change denial.” Assuming the First Amendment protects a right to engage in scholarship, advocacy, and other forms of supposed denial, it is by no means clear that information about such donations would yield a viable prosecution. Which means, notes Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, that the New York probe raises an issue of constitutional dimensions not just at some point down the road, but right now:
A prolonged investigation in response to someone’s speech can violate the First Amendment even when it never leads to a fine. For example, a federal appeals court ruled in White v. Lee, 227 F.3d 1214 (9th Cir. 2000) that lengthy, speech-chilling civil rights investigations by government officials can violate the First Amendment even when they are eventually dropped without imposing any fine or disciplinary action. It found this principle was so plain and obvious that it denied individual civil rights officials qualified immunity for investigating citizens for speaking out against a housing project for people protected by the Fair Housing Act.
In another case, in which a company had been sued seeking damages over its participation in trade-association-related speech, a federal appeals court found that the pendency of the lawsuit all by itself caused enough of a burden on the firm’s speech rights that the court used its mandamus power to order the trial judge to dismiss the claims, a remarkable step.
Moreover, Bader writes, a string of federal precedents indicate that the constitutional rights Schneiderman is trampling here are not just Exxon’s but those of the organizations it gave to, which have a right to challenge his action whether or not the oil company chooses to do so:
These groups themselves can sue Schneiderman under the First Amendment, if Schneiderman’s pressure causes them to lose donations they would otherwise receive. Government officials cannot pressure a private party to take adverse action against a speaker.
Meanwhile, writing at Liberty and Law, Prof. Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School takes a different tack: the subpoenas imperil due process and separation of powers because they issue at the whim of Schneiderman’s office. Earlier ideas of constitutional government “traditionally left government no power to demand testimony, papers, or other information, except under the authority of a judge or a legislative committee.” In more recent years executive subpoena power has proliferated; so has the parallel power of lawyers in private litigation to demand discovery, but the latter at least in theory goes on under judicial supervision that can check some of its abuse and invasiveness. Extrajudicial subpoenas by AG offices are particularly dangerous, Hamburger argues, because of their crossover civil/criminal potential: the targets do not enjoy a high level of procedural protection when “attorneys general claim to be acting merely in a civil rather than a criminal capacity,” yet the same offices can and do threaten criminal charges. Especially dangerous is New York’s Martin Act, a charter for general invasion of the private papers of anyone and anything with a connection to New York financial transactions.
An attorney general’s concern about fraud or the “public interest” is no justification for allowing him to rifle through private papers. When he thereby extracts the basis for a criminal prosecution, he evades the grand jury process. When he thereby lays the groundwork for a civil enforcement proceeding, he evades the due process of law, for there ordinarily is no discovery for a plaintiff until he commences a civil action. Even worse, when a prosecutor uses a subpoena to get a remunerative settlement, it is akin to extortion — this being the most complete end run around the courts.
[cross-posted from Cato at Liberty]
Environmentalist writer Bill McKibben, often cited as a key intellectual influence behind the push to have some climate advocacy by business declared illegal, concedes to a friendly interviewer that he’s “not sure what the legality of all this is” concerning ExxonMobil’s alleged conduct: “one assumes that there is something illegal about that, but, even if there isn’t…” [Rolling Stone] William Tucker alleges, based on his account of a personal encounter some years back, that the New Yorker writer himself elects to de-emphasize as politically unhelpful (as opposed to actually false) some scientific insights favorable to nuclear generation of electricity [Real Clear Energy, no #McKibbenKnew hashtag yet]
Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman confirmed to Judy Woodruff that donations to “climate denial organizations” such as the center-right American Enterprise Institute (!) are central to his probe [PBS] I worked at AEI back in the 1980s but have no recollection of spending time on any issues related to climate change, although perhaps I had better wait for the subpoena before saying anything definitive.
Daniel Fisher at Forbes notes the likely course of the “fishing expedition”: “if you are the New York attorney general you can create public theater to bring pressure on a particular defendant.” Fisher notes that oil majors face political risks in Africa, central Asia and thanks to our feckless politicians, the United States too (duplicate link fixed now). Michael Bastasch at the Daily Caller notes evidence that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), an impresario of the climate prosecution push, conferred behind the scenes with scientists who signed a letter endorsing the effort. And Richard Epstein discusses the various developments in a Hoover podcast.