While BP’s engineers, and all the other industry experts arrayed to assist them, are praying that the “Top Kill” procedure to end all the oil leaking into the Gulf works (it’s still too soon to know), BP’s legal team is deeply involved solving a different crisis: how to limit BP’s liability for the mess it created.
So it should come as no surprise that BP wants only one judge to handle all litigation involving the Deep Horizon disaster, a judge with troubling ties to the oil industry:
Facing more than 100 lawsuits after its Gulf of Mexico oil spill killed 11 workers and threatened four coastal states, oil giant BP is asking the courts to place every pre-trial issue in the hands of a single federal judge in Houston.
That judge, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, has traveled the world giving lectures on ethics for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, a professional association and research group that works with BP and other oil companies. The organization pays his travel expenses.
Hughes has also collected royalties from several energy companies, including ConocoPhillips and Devon Energy, from investments in mineral rights, his financial disclosure forms show. […]
In one controversial 2002 case, Hughes ruled in favor of oil companies seeking to avoid the $100 million cost of moving their pipelines for a dredging project in the Port of Houston. An appeals court later reversed the judge and said the industry, not the government, was responsible for the cost.
What a shocker, eh? Judge Lynn Hughes is a Reagan appointee. That in itself shouldn’t disqualify him from hearing these cases. Lot;s of judges are capable of impartiality regardless of their political affiliations.
However, the fact that Judge Hughes receives all paid expense trips to exotic locales to give “ethics” lectures for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, an industry group deeply tied to BP and other big oil companies, and that he has investments in, and receives income from, energy companies should require him to refuse any appointment to hear matters involving BP.
This is what lawyers call an appearance of impropriety, and Federal are bound to abide by the Code of Conduct for United States Judges. Under Canon 2 of that Code “A JUDGE SHOULD AVOID IMPROPRIETY AND THE APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY IN ALL ACTIVITIES.”
What does that mean? It’s simple, really. Here’s the comment regarding Canon 2 from the Code itself:
An appearance of impropriety occurs when reasonable minds, with knowledge of all the relevant circumstances disclosed by a reasonable inquiry, would conclude that the judge’s honesty, integrity, impartiality, temperament, or fitness to serve as a judge is impaired.
Now, under normal circumstances, reasonable minds could conclude that the honesty, impartiality and integrity of a judge (1) who receives financial favors from a large energy industry organization and (2) who receives income from investments in energy companies, might be impaired in cases involving the legal liability of BP, one of that industry’s largest corporations for a catastrophic disaster which may result in billions of dollars in damages.
However, these are not normal circumstances are they. BP has been using all means at its disposal to effectively control the process under which claims against it for this disaster can be limited to the greatest extent possible.
BP wields enormous influence at both the state and federal levels. It literally owns a number of Republican Senators who have blocked all attempts to increase the liability limit for off shore oil spills caused by the negligence of companies like BP.
BP has also has defied the orders of the Environmental Protection Agency to stop using a known toxic dispersant banned in the UK which has made it difficult to determine the actual amount of oil that has spilled into the Gulf. It detained its own employees for 40 hours and coerced them <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/20/survivor-deepwater-horizon-gulf-oil-explosion"under duress to sign statements “denying that they had been hurt or that they had witnessed the explosion that destroyed the rig.”
It practically has the Coast Guard in its pocket, as seen by the use of Cast Guard personnel to deny access by media outlets to areas where the oil had started coming ashore. We know that the Minerals Management Service, the primarily federal regulator for offshore drilling, allowed employees of BP other Big Oil companies to literally fill out the required safety inspection forms.
So it should come as no surprise that BP is attempting to force all litigation against the company for this travesty into a single judicial forum governed by a federal judge which BP obviously believes will rule in its favor more often than would other judges with fewer ties to the Oil and Gas industry.
Is this action by BP’s legal team audacious and outrageous in light of all that we know about BP’s actions now? Of course it is, but when has BP seriously given a flying fig about how its actions in this matter were being perceived? Oh sure, BP executives have made all the appropriate PR moves and shed all the appropriate crocodile tears for the TV cameras, but when push has come to shove BP has looked out for itself.
And that means from a litigation standpoint getting a judge that BP believes will view its actions in the most favorable light possible:
Edward Sherman, a law professor at Tulane University in New Orleans who has closely followed the BP legal maneuvers, said BP probably studied Hughes’ past rulings and his caseload before suggesting he take the cases.
“Obviously, another factor is they would like to have a judge who understands their point of view,” Sherman said.
I think I’d prefer a judge who understands the point of view of everyone screwed over by BP: from the Gulf Coast citizens who have seen their livelihoods destroyed to the employees who were killed as a result of BP’s reckless decisions to the American people at large who will be forced to pay the economic and environmental cost for this eco-atrocity for decades to come.
Let’s hope that Judge Hughes does the right thing and refuses to accept this position, or that if he doesn’t, that the Justice Department files a motion in opposition to this appointment.
I’ve had just about enough of BP controlling what happens since their colossal clusterfuck in the Gulf, and I’ll bet you have too.