CHRIS HEDGES: The Anonymous Executioners of the Corporate State

Imprisoning the David to Chevron’s Goliath is the latest outrage by a U.S. judiciary now engineered to favor the interests of capital.

Steven Donziger in a video message to supporters on Sept. 30. (Steve Donziger, Twitter)

By Chris Hedges

Judge Loretta Preska, an adviser to the conservative Federalist Society, to which Chevron is a major donor, sentenced human rights attorney and Chevron nemesis Steven Donziger to six months in prison Friday for misdemeanor contempt of court after he had already spent 787 days under house arrest in New York. 

Preska’s caustic outbursts — she said at the sentencing, “It seems that only the proverbial two-by-four between the eyes will instill in him any respect for the law” — capped a judicial farce worthy of the antics of Vasiliy Vasilievich, the presiding judge at the major show trials of the Great Purges in the Soviet Union, and the Nazi judge Roland Freisler who once shouted at a defendant, “You really are a lousy piece of trash!” 

Donziger, a graduate of Harvard Law School, has been fighting against polluting American oil companies for nearly three decades on behalf of indigenous communities and peasant farmers in Ecuador. 

His only “crime” was winning a $9.5 billion judgment in 2011 against Chevron for thousands of plaintiffs. The oil giant had bought Texaco oil company holdings in Ecuador, inheriting a lawsuit alleging it deliberately discharged 16 billion gallons of toxic waste from its oil sites into rivers, groundwater, and farmland. Since the verdict, Chevron has come after him, weaponizing litigation to destroy him economically, professionally and personally. 

The sentencing came a day after Donziger petitioned the court to consider an opinion by the United Nations human rights council that found his house arrest a violation of international human rights law. The U.N human rights council said his house arrest counted as detention under international law and it was therefore illegal for Judge Preska to demand an additional six months in jail. Amnesty International also called for Donziger’s immediate release. 

Donziger and his lawyers have two weeks to appeal the judge’s order that Donziger be sent immediately to jail. Preska denied Donziger bail claiming he is a flight risk. If the Federal Court of Appeals turns down Donziger’s appeal he will go to jail for six months. The irony, not lost on Donziger and his lawyers, is that the higher court may overturn Preska’s ruling against him, but by the time that decision is made he will potentially have already spent six months in jail.

Outside the New York courthouse after Steven Donziger’s Oct. 1 sentencing. (Steve Donziger, Twitter)

“What Judge Preska is trying to do is force me to serve the entirety of my sentence before the appellate court can rule,” Donziger told me by phone on Monday. “If the appellate court rules in my favor, I will still have served my sentence, although I am innocent in the eyes of the law.”

Donziger, his lawyers have pointed out, is the first person under U.S. law charged with a “B” misdemeanor to be placed on home confinement, prior to trial, with an ankle monitor.

He is the first person charged with any misdemeanor to be held under home confinement for over two years.

He is the first attorney ever to be charged with criminal contempt over a discovery dispute in a civil case where the attorney went into voluntary contempt to pursue an appeal.

He is the first person to be prosecuted under Rule 42 (criminal contempt) by a private prosecutor with financial ties to the entity and industry that was a litigant in the underlying civil dispute that gave rise to the orders.

He is the first person tried by a private prosecutor who had ex parte communications with the charging judge while that judge remained (and remains) unrecused on the criminal case.

“No lawyer in New York for my level of offense ever has served more than 90 days and that was in home confinement,” Donziger told the court.

“I have now been in home confinement eight times that period of time. I have been disbarred without a hearing where I have been unable to present factual evidence; thus, I am unable to earn an income in my profession. I have no passport. I can’t travel; can’t do human rights work the normal way which I believe I am reasonably good at; can’t see my clients in Ecuador; can’t visit the affected communities to hear the latest news of cancer deaths or struggles to maintain life in face of constant exposure to oil pollution. In addition, and this is little known, Judge [Lewis A.] Kaplan has imposed millions and millions of dollars of fines and courts costs on me. [Kaplan is the judge for Chevron’s lawsuit against Donziger; Preska is his handpicked judge for the contempt charges.] He has ordered me to pay millions to Chevron to cover their legal fees in attacking me, and then he let Chevron go into my bank accounts and take all my life’s savings because I did not have the funds to cover these costs. Chevron still has a pending motion to order me to pay them an additional $32 [million] in legal fees. That’s where things stand today. I ask you humbly: might that be enough punishment already for a Class B misdemeanor?” 

Judge Preska was unmoved.

“Mr. Donziger has spent the last seven years thumbing his nose at the U.S. judicial system,” Preska said at his sentencing hearing. “Now it’s time to pay the piper.” 

The six-month sentence was the maximum the judge was allowed to impose; she ruled that his house arrest cannot be counted as part of his detention. From start to finish, this has been a burlesque. It is emblematic of a court system that has been turned over to lackies of corporate power, who use the veneer of jurisprudence, decorum and civility to make a mockery of the rule of law. 

Enforcers of Injustice

Loretta Preska. (U.S. District Court staff, Wikimedia Commons)

When the law is neutered, judges become the enforcers of injustice. These corporate judges, who epitomize what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, now routinely make war on workers, civil liberties, unions and environmental regulations. 

Preska sent Jeremy Hammond to prison for a decade for hacking into the computers of a private security firm that works on behalf of the government, including the Department of Homeland Security and corporations such as Dow Chemical. In 2011, Hammond released to the website WikiLeaks and Rolling Stone and other publications some 3 million emails from the Texas-based company Strategic Forecasting Inc., or Stratfor. The sentence was one of the longest in U.S. history for hacking and the maximum Preska could impose under a plea agreement in the case. I sat through the Hammond trial. I watched Preska spew her bile and contempt at Hammond from the bench with the same vitriol she used to attack Donziger. 

Preska is also infamous for her long judicial crusade to force New York public schools to provide tax-subsidized free space for evangelical churches based on blatantly illogical readings of the Constitution.

The persecution of Donziger fits a pattern familiar to millions of poor Americans who are coerced into accepting plea deals, many for crimes they did not commit, and sent to prison for decades.

It fits the pattern of the judicial lynching and prolonged psychological torture of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning. It fits the pattern of those denied habeas corpus and due process at Guantánamo Bay or in CIA black sites.

It fits the pattern of those charged under terrorism laws, many held at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Lower Manhattan, who cannot see the evidence used to indict them.

It fits the pattern of the widespread use of Special Administrative Measures, known as SAMs, imposed to prevent or severely restrict communication with other prisoners, attorneys, family, the media and people outside the jail.

It fits the pattern of the extreme sensory deprivation and prolonged isolation used on those in U.S. black sites and prisons, a form of psychological torture, the refinement of torture as science. By the time a “terrorist” is dragged into secretive courts the bewildered suspect no longer has the mental and psychological capability to defend themselves. If they can do this legally to the demonized they can, and one day will, do it to the rest of us. The Donziger case is an ominous warning that the American legal system is broken. 

Jeremy Hammond in March 2014. (, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikiedia Commons)

Ralph Nader, who graduated from Harvard Law School, has long decried the capture of the courts and law schools by corporate power, calling the nation’s attorneys and judges “lucrative cogs in the corporate wheel.” He notes that law school curriculums are “built around corporate law, and corporate power, and corporate perpetration, and corporate defense.” 

Victor Klemperer, who was dismissed from his post as a professor of Romance languages at the University of Dresden in 1935 because of his Jewish ancestry, astutely noted how at first the Nazis “changed the values, the frequency of words, [and] made them into common property, words that had previously been used by individuals or tiny troupes. They confiscated words for the party, saturated words and phrases and sentence forms with their poison. They made language serve their terrible system. They conquered words and made them into their strongest advertising tools [Werebemittle], at once the most public and most secret.” And, Klemperer noted, as the redefinition of old concepts took place the public was oblivious.

Victor Klemperer, undated. (Bundesarchiv, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

This redefinition of words and concepts has, as Klemperer witnessed during the rise of fascism, allowed the courts to twist the law into an instrument of injustice, revoking our rights by judicial fiat.

It has seen the courts permit unlimited dark money into political campaigns under Citizens United, defending our money-saturated elections as the right to petition the government and a form of free speech. The courts have revoked our right to privacy and legalized wholesale government surveillance in the name of national security. The courts grant corporations the rights of individuals, while rarely holding the individuals who run the corporations accountable for corporate crimes.

Pro-Corporate Christian Fascists

Very few of the legal rulings that benefit corporate power have popular support. The corporate disemboweling of the country, therefore, is increasingly given cover by Christian fascists, who energize their base around abortion, prayer in schools, guns and breaking down the separation of church and state. These issues are rarely addressed in cases before federal courts. But they distract the base from the slew of pro-corporate rulings that dominate most court dockets.

Corporations such as Tyson Foods, Purdue, Walmart, and Sam’s Warehouse have poured millions into institutions that indoctrinate these Christian fascists, including Liberty University and Patrick Henry Law School. They fund the Judicial Crisis Network and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which campaigned for Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Barrett opposes abortion and belongs to People of Praise, a far-right Catholic cult that practices “speaking in tongues.” She and the other far-right ideologues are hostile to LGBTQ rights. But this is not why she is so beloved by corporations, who are not interested in abortion, LGBTQ equality or gun rights. 

Barrett and the Christian fascists embrace an ideology that believes that God will take care of the righteous. Those who are poor, those who are sick, those who go to prison, those who are unemployed, those who cannot succeed in society do so because they have failed to please God.

In this worldview there is no need for unions, universal health care, a social safety net or prison reform. Barrett has ruled consistently in favor of corporations to cheat gig workers out of overtime, green-light fossil fuel extraction and pollution and strip consumers of protection from corporate fraud. The watchdog group Accountable.US found that as a circuit court judge, Barrett “faced at least 55 cases in which citizens took on corporate entities in front of her court and 76% of the time she sided with the corporations.” 

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The Christian fascists, allied with organizations such as the Federalist Society, under the Trump administration gave lifetime appointments to nearly 200 judges, roughly 23 percent of all federal judgeships. That included 53 to the nation’s appellate courts, those immediately under the Supreme Court.

The American Bar Association, the country’s largest nonpartisan coalition of lawyers, has rated many of these appointments as unqualified. There are currently six Federalist Society Supreme Court justices, including Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who Nader calls “a corporation masquerading as a human being.”

Two Federalist Society Supreme Court justices, Clarence Thomas and the late Antonin Scalia, who was an original faculty adviser to the organization founded by conservative law students in 1982, were supported in the nomination process by Joe Biden.

Chevron’s corporate offices in Houston. (Jonathan McIntosh, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The stacking of the courts with corporate puppets, however, began long before Trump. It was carried out by both Republican and Democratic administrations. Preska was appointed by Republican President G.W. Bush. However, the judge who preceded Preska in the Donziger case, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, a former lawyer for the tobacco industry who had undisclosed investments in funds with Chevron holdings, according to his public financial disclosure statement, was appointed by Democratic President Clinton. 

The targeting of the courts was one of the key goals of Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer later elevated to the Supreme Court by President Nixon. In Powell’s 1971 memo to the Chamber of Commerce, a blueprint for the slow-motion corporate coup that has taken place, he called on business interests to pack the judiciary with corporate-friendly judges. 

Justice Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.’s 1976 official portrait. (Robert S. Oakes, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons)

The courts in all tyrannies are dominated by mediocrities and buffoons. They make up for their intellectual and moral vacuity with a zealous subservience to power. They turn courtroom trials into opera buffa, at least until the victim is shackled and pushed out the door to a prison cell. They fulminate in caustic tirades at the condemned, whose sentence is never in doubt and whose guilt is never in question. 

“It started when Texaco went into Ecuador in the Amazon in the 1960s and cut a sweetheart deal with the military government then ruling Ecuador,” Donziger told me for a column I wrote about his case a year ago. “Over the next 25 years, Texaco was the exclusive operator of a very large area of the Amazon that had several oil fields within this area, 1500 square miles. They drilled hundreds of wells. They created thousands of open-air, unlined toxic waste pits where they dumped the heavy metals and toxins that came up from the ground when they drilled. They ran pipes from the pits into rivers and streams that local people relied on for their drinking water, their fishing, and their sustenance. They poisoned this pristine ecosystem, in which lived five indigenous peoples, as well as a lot of other nonindigenous rural communities. There was a mass industrial poisoning.”

“The verdict came down, about $18 billion in favor of the affected communities, which is what it would take at a minimum to clean up the actual damage and compensate the people for some of their injuries,” Donziger told me. “That eventually got reduced on appeal in Ecuador to $9.5 billion, but it was affirmed by three appellate courts, including the highest court of Ecuador. It was affirmed by the Canadian Supreme Court, where the Ecuadorians went to enforce their judgment in a unanimous opinion in 2015.”

Chevron promptly sold its assets and left Ecuador. It refused to pay the fees to clean up its environmental damage. It invested an estimated $2 million to destroy Danziger.

(Original illustration by Mr. Fish)

Chevron sued him, using a civil courts portion of the federal law famous for breaking the New York Mafia in the 1970s, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO Act.

Chevron, which has more than $260 billion in assets, hired an estimated 2,000 lawyers from 60 law firms to carry out its campaign, according to court documents. But the oil giant, which did not want a jury to hear the case, dropped its demand for financial damages, which would have allowed Donziger to request a jury trial.

This allowed Judge Kaplan to decide the RICO case against Donziger alone. He found credible a witness named Alberto Guerra, an Ecuadorian judge, relocated to the U.S. by Chevron at a cost of some $2 million, who claimed the verdict in Ecuador was the product of a bribe.

Kaplan used Guerra’s testimony as primary evidence for the racketeering charge, although Guerra, a former judge, later admitted to an international tribunal that he had falsified his testimony.

John Keker of San Francisco, one of Donziger’s lawyers on that case, said he was up against 160 lawyers for Chevron and during the trial he felt “like a goat tethered to a stake.” He called the court proceedings under Kaplan “a Dickensian farce” and a “show trial.”

In the end, Kaplan ruled that the judgment in the Ecuadorian court against Chevron was the result of fraud. He also ordered Donziger to turn over decades of all client communication to Chevron, in effect eradicating attorney-client privilege, a backbone of the Anglo-American legal system with roots dating to ancient Rome.

Donziger appealed what was, according to legal experts following the case, an unprecedented and illegal order. While Donziger’s appeal was pending, Kaplan charged him with misdemeanor criminal contempt for this principled stance — carrying a maximum sentence of six months — as well as his refusal to turn over his passport, his personal electronics and to refrain from seeking the collection of the original award against Chevron.

When the U.S. attorney’s office declined for five years to prosecute his criminal contempt charges against the environmental lawyer, Kaplan, using an exceedingly rare judicial maneuver, appointed the private law firm of Seward & Kissel, to act in the name of the government to prosecute Donziger. Neither the judge nor the law firm disclosed that Chevron has been a client of Seward & Kissel

Kaplan also violated the established random case assignment protocol to personally assign Preska, who had served on an advisory board of the Federalist Society, a group to which Chevron has been a lavish donor, to hear the case.

Kaplan had Preska demand Donziger post an $800,000 bond on the misdemeanor charge. Preska placed him under house arrest and confiscated his passport, which he has used to meet with attorneys around the world attempting to enforce the judgment against Chevron. Kaplan managed to have Donziger disbarred. He allowed Chevron to freeze Donziger’s bank accounts, slapped Donziger with millions in fines without allowing him a jury, forced him to wear an ankle monitor 24 hours a day and effectively shut down his ability to earn a living. Kaplan allowed Chevron to impose a lien on Donziger’s apartment in Manhattan where he lives with his wife and teenage son.

None of this would surprise those targeted by the tyrannies of the past. What would be surprising, perhaps, to many Americans is how advanced our own corporate tyranny has become. Donziger never stood a chance. Neither does Julian Assange. These judges are not, in the end, focused on Donziger or Assange, but on us. The show trials they preside over are meant to be transparently biased. They are designed to send a message. All who defy corporate power and the national security state will be lynched. There will be no reprieve because there is no justice.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show “On Contact.” 

This column is from Scheerpost, for which Chris Hedges writes a regular columnClick here to sign up for email alerts.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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17 comments for “CHRIS HEDGES: The Anonymous Executioners of the Corporate State

  1. Patrick kerrigan
    October 9, 2021 at 07:57

    It’s far too late for a peaceful resolution of the on going self destruction of civilised life in America. Much self sacrifice and pain lie ahead for a decent civilised lawful and fair American society to be resurrected. God help the American people.

  2. M B Turnbull
    October 8, 2021 at 21:55

    Regarding Hedges’ bashing people of faith : amongst his many other accomplishments, Hedges is an ordained Presbyterian minister.

  3. Doris Soroko
    October 8, 2021 at 21:09

    As usual from Mr.Hedges, brilliant and in this case, particularly chilling.

    Perhaps it time to start a draft Ralph Nader for President?

  4. Liberty Writer
    October 8, 2021 at 21:02

    Crony Communism is no better than good ole communism.

  5. William F Johnson
    October 8, 2021 at 17:25

    I know this story all too well as I’m sure many others do who have worked as advocates for the poor, the disadvantaged, the wrongfully accused and have engaged in the post conviction remedy process that rarely succeeds, even if we’re talking about absolute innocence. I managed to get one man out however, but under the wrong terms. (Sorry. Long Story.) It’s always heartbreaking and this case isn’t all that different. I had to stop doing this type of work 20 years ago as a consequence of state power and corruption because it’s a lose lose scenario in more ways then people know. When the courts become utterly corrupt, as they are nowadays, not a thing you may have learned about law is going to be helpful under the assault of raw power. The powerful do as they please, although that power extends much deeper than many realize or would like to explore.
    One interesting to myself example: I’ve offered my services to various organizations pro bono (for free) from 1996 to around 2000 and never heard a word back from any of the ones I thought might be the good guys if you will, which I found surprising, since I was published in the Va. Supreme Court Reporter on a minor case with huge implications. and had I been before an honest court, the outcome would have obvious and a bombshell. The Southern Poverty Law Center and others too many to name here, would not allow me to help them. I found this strange, but soon realized many of these were as much a part of the system as the courts and corporations owning them.
    Y’all be careful out there. I don’t often raise my head anymore because I’m old, been there, understand the downside far better than most, and also understand I still have a target on my back.

  6. Vesa Sainio
    October 8, 2021 at 06:14

    I think that these Preskas and Kaplans should somehow to be made accountable of their crimes. This just cant conntinue for ever.

    It just makes me wonder, how evil a human being can evolve. What does Preska tell her family about her job.

  7. Chris Herz
    October 7, 2021 at 20:50

    I was arrested with Hedges (and Dan Ellsberg too) twenty years ago as we joined the vets of Iraq war I protesting the meretricious buildup to Iraq War II. It was like a graduate level seminar on he importance of resistance to he wicked warfare state.
    I’ve carefully followed Mr Hedges ever since and I urge others to do so too.

  8. Aaron
    October 7, 2021 at 20:13

    That he is still suffering even after Guerra admitted he lied at the RICO trial really sends a chill down one’s spine. Adding insult to injury is having to listen to a stupid bitch like Preska yelling bizarre, unprofessional, personal attacks at him like that.
    Very Kafkaesque and maddening.

  9. John Stanley
    October 7, 2021 at 19:46

    It is so important that these travesties of justice and the judicial scum who implement them be brought into the public arena for discussion and derision. Our thanks to Chris hedges for the stalwart efforts he makes in continuing the battle.
    What is particularly sad is not only are the American public so ill-educated and so duped by the corporate mafia but that the
    judicial system is also packed with intellectual incompetents who have no appreciation of the extent to which their actions are speeding up the arrival of fully fledged Nazi government in the USA.
    As Madam Defarge said at the guillotine”Oh Liberty what crimes are committed in thy name’

  10. Lois Gagnon
    October 7, 2021 at 17:12

    Yet most Americans will continue to be good Germans and keep their heads down like nothing is rotten in their idealic democracy. For those who are painfully aware of the rot at the core of the system, the hour is late to turn this ship around.

  11. October 7, 2021 at 17:01

    Excellent article but for the counterproductive detour to bash people of faith.

    • Cara MariAnna
      October 8, 2021 at 08:29

      I think we need a definition of what constitutes a “person of faith.” Anyone who is meaningfully a “person of faith” works in every way they can to opposed empire, which is what Jesus did. A “person of faith” dedicates their life (however imperfectly) to kindness, love, compassion, generosity and serving the poor. The people Hedges describes cannot credibly even claim to be Christians.

      Hedges wasn’t bashing people of faith. He was calling out unChristian behavior and hypocrisy.

  12. Jack Flanigan
    October 7, 2021 at 15:49

    I am a 75 year old Australian and feel that my country is heading in the same direction as the US (destruction/oblivion).
    It seems that the entire system has been built on lies and is being exposed.
    Julian Assange and Stephen Donziger are victims of corporate and government corruption and the courts, media and governments in the US,UK and at home display and revel in a level of institutional nastiness and arrogant indifference. The “things” or “creatures” that inhabit the offices of power in these institutions of law, government and corporations should be disposed, incarcerated; their property confiscated and publicly named and shamed. The blatant greed and hunger for power coupled with a spiteful indifference to human rights and suffering shames all of us.

    The world is in a mess and the poem of W.B. Yeats “The Second Coming” is as appropriate today as it was in 1919.

    “The world is spinning out of control with a madman at the wheel” ( contained in a song written and performed by the late Slim Dusty)

    • evelync
      October 8, 2021 at 19:30

      I remember, Jack, Flanagan, when Canadians were almost corralled by PM Diefenbaker into funding just 1 nuclear submarine for the arctic to fatten the U.S. MIC. But wiser heads ruled.
      Now the U.S. MIC is pulling the same trick on Australian taxpayers with 8 nuclear submarines at $3.5 billion each.

      One sub to patrol the whole arctic was seen as clearly absurd…easier to ridicule and Diefenbaker backed down.
      I’m sorry that the people of Australia find themselves on the hook this time.

      Power and wealth goes to peoples’ heads and they can no longer think straight.
      Thus they become bullies. Foolish bullies who are no longer capable of looking the real existential threats in the face – climate catastrophe and nuclear war…they just keep doubling down to push people/countries around, piling up more $trillions into the pockets of the never satisfied.

      What you write is spot on!

      Thanks for referring us to Slim Dusty.

      Eric Bogle is one of my favorites of all time.

  13. Dennis Rice
    October 7, 2021 at 15:24

    There is more gospel in this article than is being preached from any Christian church around the world.

    The last Christian preacher this world had was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For certain there is no one in the
    United States ministries with such boldness.

    When the state is corrupt, it is time to set aside the so called “separation of church and state.”

    Where is Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

    • October 8, 2021 at 15:40

      Actually I think Martin Luther King had it right: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

      Not the servant, and NOT THE MASTER either, but guide and critic, and CONSCIENCE.

      Martin Luther King spoke powerfully about issues of justice and racial equality, but was no advocate of partisan politicking or handing out candidate endorsements from the pulpit or in church.

      King did not support the social goals of the Religious Right. He was an advocate of family planning. And unlike Alabama governor George Wallace, he was in favor of the Supreme Court decision striking down government-sponsored prayer in public schools.

      No, church and state must be separate. That is a vital principle. The state must not be identified with any particular religion.



  14. Zim
    October 7, 2021 at 14:40

    Thanks. Great essay.

Comments are closed.