Massachusetts Court Rules Suit Against Exxon Can Move Forward

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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled against Exxon in its bid to stop a suit filed by Attorney General Maura Healey from going to trial. In that suit, the state of Massachusetts alleges that Exxon lied about the climate crisis and covered up the fossil fuel industry’s role in making the environmental devastation caused by its activities worse. The state further accuses Exxon of breaking its consumer protection laws by engaging in a decades-long coverup of what it knew about the impact of burning fossil fuels on the climate. Finally, the state’s suit claims the company deceived investors about the risks to its business posed by global heating.

Exxon claimed the case was politically motivated and amounted to an attempt to prevent the company from exercising its free speech rights. The Texas Supreme Court, composed entirely of judges marinated in that state’s oil soaked culture, recently heard similar arguments and pushed them rudely aside. Exxon also claimed the lawsuit violated state laws designed to prevent SLAPP suits — strategic lawsuits against public participation — which are often used by wealthy individuals and corporations to silence critics.

In a unanimous decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that anti-SLAPP laws do not apply to government cases. The decision clears the way for the state’s case to proceed to trial in state court. Attorney General Healey, who is a candidate for governor, hailed the ruling as “a resounding victory in our work to stop Exxon from lying to investors and consumers in our state,” according to The Guardian.

[A brief word about government in Massachusetts and nomenclature. Originally, the branch of government responsible for passing laws was known as the Supreme Legislative Court. The highest law court was called the Supreme Court of Errors. It didn’t take long for local wags to turn that into the Court of Supreme Errors, something the justices found undignified. So they prevailed on the electorate to change the name. It is now known as the Supreme Judicial Court or SJC for short. We now return you to your regular program, already in progress.]

Exxon Loses & Loses Again

Exxon and its buddies are desperate to get the numerous suits filed by states such as Rhode Island and others removed from state courts and transferred to federal court. For one thing, state courts allow broader pre-trial discovery, which means the oil companies can be compelled to turn over reams of documentation and records that may reveal the full extent of their unrelenting campaign to sacrifice the Earth on the altar of greed.

But there is a second reason while the oil and gas industry wants to be in federal court. Ultimately, any decision by a federal court will wind up in the lap of the US Supreme Court. Six of the current justices of that august body were suckled by the generosity of the Federalist Society, a group created largely at the behest of the Koch brothers. There is no way in God’s green earth those 6 so-called justices are going to allow any decision that undermines their benefactors to stand. In other words, the fix is in.

Do not lose sight of the fact that much of the far right wing, totalitarian policies espoused by modern day reactionaries are congruent with the beliefs of Charles Koch, who learned them at the knee of his father, Fred Koch, founder of the John Birch Society and proud servant to both Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. The apple doesn’t fall far from tree. America is run by an oligarchy of fossil fuel interests. They control the Congress, the courts, most state legislatures, and — every once in a while — the executive branch.

While the Federalist Society supports a range of cultural issues from abortion to gun control, its foundation is built on the money derived from peddling oil and gas to the nation and the world. All the blather that surrounds America’s current culture wars is mostly a smokescreen designed to hide the extent to which the national and state governments are funded by money from the Oil Patch. It’s designed to divert our attention from what is really going on while the fossil fuel industry continues to destroy the planer that sustains us all. The oil and gas barons might do well to recall the words of Sir Walter Scott: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”

The oil industry suffered another defeat on Monday when a federal appeals court ruled that a lawsuit by Rhode Island against 21 fossil fuel companies, including Exxon, BP, and Shell, can go ahead in state court. “The ruling is a major victory for Rhode Island, which is now one step closer to putting oil and gas corporations on trial for fueling the climate crisis, lying about it, and then sticking the state’s taxpayers with the bill for the damages. Four circuit courts in a row have now handed major defeats to big oil companies in these cases, rejecting the industry’s efforts to escape accountability,” Robert Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, told The Guardian.

At least 10 other federal courts across the country have rejected the industry’s attempts to get similar cases out of the state systems. So far this year, federal appeals courts made similar rulings in Colorado, Maryland, and California.

In March, a court in Hawaii gave the go-ahead for a case brought by the city of Honolulu to continue in state court. That suit alleges the oil giants “engaged in a coordinated, multi-front effort” to deny the threat posed by global heating, to discredit the science of climate change, and to deceive the public “about the reality and consequences of the impacts of their fossil fuel pollution.” The chair of Honolulu city council, Tommy Waters, called it a “big and important win.”

He added, “We are facing incredible costs to move critical infrastructure away from our coasts and out of flood zones, and the oil companies that deceived the public for decades should be the ones helping pick up the tab for those costs, not our taxpayers,” he said. “The reason these companies are fighting so hard to block this case is they don’t want even more evidence to come out. This is just like big tobacco, when they tried to take advantage of the public.”

The Takeaway

One of the criticisms of these climate suits is that their subject matter is the proper province of legislatures, not courts, and there is some merit to that argument. At least there would be if the companies did not have so many legislators in their pocket. Politicians should be protecting the citizens who elected them and not special interests with unlimited financial resources.

The radical right has subverted much of the executive and legislative branches of government at both the state and federal level in a deliberate attempt to insulate themselves from responsibility for their actions. How else to explain a new law in Texas — where everything is bigger, even the corruption — that prohibits pension funds from divesting themselves of their holdings in oil and gas companies?

The upshot is that elections have consequences. One of the consequences of installing the Orange Ogre in the White House in 2016 is a US Supreme Court that is a virtual captive of the fossil fuel industry. Something to keep in mind the next time you cast a ballot in America.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

Steve Hanley has 5250 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley