Tag: Comer

Recusal Rules Impact Environmental (and Other) Litigation

Two weeks ago I blogged about the dismissal of the Katrina-related global warming case because half the judges on the Fifth Circuit were recused for having financial interests in the energy companies and utilities (which the plaintiffs chose specifically to gain recusals but mis-timed their strategy).  Well, now it seems that many judges on the Gulf Coast are recusing themselves from the nascent (and future) oil spill suits, again because they own shares of BP, Transocean, and the other companies involved.  Indeed, over half the federal district judges in the affected states – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida – will not be participating in these cases, leading to calls to appoint judges from elsewhere in the country to handle them.

That’s ridiculous!  Owning a few hundred or thousand dollars worth of shares of stock is not enough to change the way a judge will behave, particularly when the public knows which judge owns which stock.  If we cannot agree that such purported “conflicts” don’t really show an appearance of impropriety – if we really doubt the integrity of our judiciary to such an extent – then we might as well throw out the ethics rules, throw up our hands, and declare the country ungovernable.  (I’m reminded of the Carrie Underwood song, “Jesus Take the Wheel.”)

Moreover, the financial conflict rules are murky.  As this AP story discusses, ”a judge does not have to step aside if the investments are part of a mutual fund over which they have no management control. Mere ties to companies or entities in the same industry, no matter how extensive, also don’t require disqualification.”  So here we’re valuing form over substance.

Look, maybe this is just a pet peeve of mine – it’s not an ideological issue one way or the other – but I think you just have to apply the “reasonable skeptic” standard.  Every judge is human and has his various biases.  It’s one thing to recuse if counsel for one of the parties is the judge’s spouse or child, or if half the judge’s wealth is invested in one of the parties.  But dinky little “abundance of caution” recusals cost the justice system more in administrative hassle, sunk attorney fees, and other wastes of time and money than they benefit it in increased integrity.

As for the oil spill litigation, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation – which looks at complex cases on similar issues brought in disparate venues – meets July 29 in Boise, Idaho (of all places), to hear arguments on consolidation.  In light of the aforementioned recusals, the Louisiana cases may well be sent to Alabama, Mississippi, or South Florida – or a federal courthouse near you!

Global Warming Plaintiffs Hoisted on Their Own Petard

We have reached a denouement of sorts in the “blame XYZ companies for causing global warming which caused Hurricane Katrina which damaged my property” lawsuit that I’ve previously discussed and in which Cato filed an amicus brief.  When last I blogged about this, the Fifth Circuit had apparently lost its en banc quorum – a late judicial recusal left only 8 of 16 judges available to hear the appeal – and was figuring out what to do. 

Well, on Thursday the court issued an order determining that it lacked a quorum, but that the panel opinion – the one that allowed the tendentious causation claims to proceed – remained vacated.  The money quote: “In sum, a court without a quorum cannot conduct judicial business… .  Because neither this en banc court, nor the panel, can conduct further judicial business in this appeal, the Clerk is directed to dismiss the appeal.”  This means that the district court opinion dismissing the suit stands, though plaintiffs are free to seek Supreme Court review.  Not surprisingly, the three judges on the panel dissented from this order (which means that the order was decided by a 5-3 vote).

The upshot of all this is that the plaintiffs ended up botching their strategy of suing companies whose shares are owned by Fifth Circuit judges.  This clever legerdemain successfully removed seven judges, but that left a quorum of nine.  Of course, had the late-recusing eighth, Jennifer Elrod – who would’ve been expected to rule against the plaintiffs – recused when the first seven did, the court could not have vacated the panel opinion in the first place.  We’ll never know what happened after the court’s prior decision to grant rehearing that caused Judge Elrod to recuse, but at least we’re left with the second-best result: no strong decision from an important federal appellate court, but the reinstatment of the correct decision below.

Big Global Warming Case Hinges on Weird Procedural Technicality

Nearly two weeks ago, I blogged about some strange procedural developments in the big global warming case coming out of the Gulf Coast, Comer v. Murphy Oil USA.  On the eve of final briefing deadlines before the en banc Fifth Circuit, an eighth judge of that court recused from the case (we don’t know the reason, but the previous seven recusals were presumably due to stock ownership) and so the court was faced with an unprecedented situation: losing an en banc quorum after previously having had enough of one to vacate the panel decision and grant en banc rehearing in the first place.  We were all set to file our brief when the Clerk of the Fifth Circuit issued an order notifying the parties of the lost quorum and canceling the scheduled hearing — and nothing more.  Out of an abundance of caution, we decided to go ahead with filing late last week.

Again, here’s the situation: Mississippi homeowners sued 34 energy companies and utilities operating in the Gulf Coast for damage sustained to their property during Hurricane Katrina. The homeowners alleged that the defendants had emitted greenhouse gases, which increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which contributed to global warming, which accelerated the melting of glaciers, which raised the global sea level, which increased the frequency and severity of hurricanes, which caused the destructive force of Hurricane Katrina. The district court concluded that it lacked the authority to resolve the public debate over global warming and dismissed the case. A Fifth Circuit panel reversed this dismissal, holding that the homeowners have standing to raise some of their claims and that those claims are appropriate for resolution by the federal courts. The Fifth Circuit then granted rehearing en banc.

Cato filed an amicus brief on the energy companies’ behalf, arguing that homeowners lack standing to bring their suit and that the case raises a nonjusticiable political question. Our brief asserts that the homeowners’ claim does not provide a clear causal connection between the harm suffered and any particular conduct by the energy companies, and that the money damages the homeowners requested would not remedy the environmental harm alleged. More importantly, we maintain that political questions such as those surrounding climate change must be resolved by Congress, not the federal courts. Put simply, the Constitution prohibits federal courts from resolving highly technical social and economic policy debates. Permitting plaintiffs to achieve “regulation by litigation” would not only contradict settled Supreme Court precedent, but would betray the separation of powers principles embodied in the Constitution.

The Clerk has since directed the parties to brief the procedural issues surrounding the apparent lost quorum, which letter-briefs came in this week (as a mere amicus, we did not file on this).  I’ll spare you the technical details, but there are three possible ways in which the Fifth Circuit could now rule: 1) the court actually does have a quorum and thus oral argument is resecheduled; 2) the panel decision is reinstated (with an ensuing cert petition appealing that decision to the Supreme Court); and 3) the district court is affirmed without opinion (the same result as when an appellate court vote is tied).  Stay tuned — this is a truly weird denouement to a hugely important case.

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!