Of Butterflies, Tsunamis, and Draconian Recusal Standards

Last October, I blogged about Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, a lawsuit in Mississippi alleging that the defendant oil, coal, utility, and chemical companies emit carbon dioxide, which causes global warming, which exacerbated Hurricane Katrina, which damaged the plaintiffs’ property.  Mass tort litigation specialist Russell Jackson called the case “the litigator’s equivalent to the game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.’”  In a brief that Cato was due to file this week, I framed the operative question as, “When a butterfly flaps its wings, can it be sued for the damage any subsequent tsunami causes?”

The plaintiffs asserted a variety of theories under Mississippi common law, but the main issue at this stage was whether the plaintiffs had standing, or whether they could demonstrate that their injuries were “fairly traceable” to the defendants’ actions.  The federal district court dismissed the case but a dream panel (for the plaintiffs) of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the plaintiffs could indeed proceed with claims regarding public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence. 

In my blog post, I predicted that the Fifth Circuit would take up the case en banc (meaning before all the judges on the court, in this case 17) and reverse the panel.  And this was all set to happen – even though eight judges recused themselves, presumably because they owned shares of defendant companies – with en banc argument slated for May 24.  I was planning to head down to New Orleans for it, in part because the judge I clerked for, E. Grady Jolly, was going to preside over the hearing (the only two more senior active judges being recused).

But a funny thing happened on the way to legal sanity.  On Friday, not half an hour after I had finished editing Cato’s brief, the court clerk issued a notice informing the parties that one more judge had recused and, therefore, the en banc court lacked a quorum.  As of this writing, I still don’t know who this judge is and what circumstances had changed since the granting of the en banc rehearing to cause the recusal.  And indeed, by all accounts the Fifth Circuit is still figuring out what to do in this unusual (and, as far as I know, unprecedented) situation where a court loses a quorum it initially had – having already vacated the panel decision.

In short, the court could decide that the vacatur stands and either remand to a (now-confused) district court or rehear the case in a new random panel assignment.  More likely, however, the court will now reinstate the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad panel decision – and we’ll tweak our brief to make into one that supports the defendants’ inevitable cert petition.

All in all, an illustration of the absurdity both of litigating climate change politics in the courts and of forcing judges (including Supreme Court justices) to withdraw from cases for owning a few hundred dollars’ worth of stock.  If that’s all it takes to corrupt federal judges, we have bigger problems than trial lawyers run amok!