Legal Newsline

Friday, April 10, 2020

Kamala Harris, other Dems condemn Big Oil's lobbying but support lawsuits brought by campaign donors


By John O'Brien | Apr 1, 2019


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) – Democratic U.S. Senators are complaining that Big Oil’s lobbying efforts have stifled climate change measures and are supporting lawsuits against it – but they have also accepted more than $30,000 in donations from the private lawyers who would benefit financially.

Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse and California’s Kamala Harris are among the senators who recently filed an amicus brief that asks the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reinstate lawsuits brought by Oakland and San Francisco against the fossil fuels industry. A federal judge last year dismissed them, ruling that it is not the job of the courts to impose regulations.

The six Democratic senators say courts should make an exception because Congress and the President have not been able to implement stronger standards than what are already in place.

“Defendants long have engaged in successful efforts to block climate action in the other coequal branches,” says the brief, filed March 20. “They now seek to do the same before the judiciary.”

The rest of their arguments can be seen here in a brief that complains that oil companies “nearly exclusively fund political campaigns for candidates opposed to legislative action on climate change.” Harris is running for President.

These cases started with a group of California cities and counties hiring lawyers at Hagens Berman and Sher Edling to represent them on contingency fees. Those firms stand to make about 20%-25% of whatever recovery comes from the lawsuits.

Other government officials have jumped in too. Similar lawsuits have been filed in King County, Wash.; Boulder, Colo.; New York City; Rhode Island; and Baltimore.

The cases name companies like Exxon, Chevron and BP. They are mostly on hold while federal courts wrestle with the idea of sending them to state court to be heard.

Two months ago in the Rhode Island case, attorneys at Sher Edling asked a federal judge to send the State’s case back to state court. Plaintiffs attorneys want these cases in state court and argue they allege state law “public nuisance” claims.

Judges who imposed federal jurisdiction and ruled that federal law “public nuisance” claims are not allowed have cited U.S. Supreme Court precedent in dismissing the lawsuits. Plaintiffs lawyers claim they are suing the industry for producing and selling fossil fuels, not over their emissions.

Rhode Island’s case is notable, though, in that its state Supreme Court already rejected a high-profile public nuisance lawsuit brought by the state Attorney General’s Office. It’s possible that decision prevents state law public nuisance claims against product sellers.

That lawsuit was initiated by then-attorney general Whitehouse. Plaintiffs lawyers have been some of the largest supporters of his career.

The Thornton Law Firm, which made headlines in the controversial State Street settlement, has given more than $73,000 to his campaign funds, while Motley Rice, which has an office in Providence, has given $58,253.

A former Motley Rice attorney, Jack McConnell, also now sits on the federal bench in Rhode Island, having been nominated by Whitehouse and Jack Reed, the state's other senator. McConnell had given more than $25,000 to the two prior to his nomination.

McConnell was on the team at Motley Rice hired by Whitehouse to pursue the lead paint case that was ultimately unsuccessful.

Attorneys at Sher Edling have given $8,750 to Whitehouse since 2016, the year the firm was founded.

Vic Sher has also given $3,250 to Harris, the former attorney general of California. Recently, Oakland and San Francisco (where Harris was once district attorney) hired Sher Edling to represent it in the appeal of their cases’ dismissal.

Before that, the Hagens Berman firm represented the two cities. Attorneys there gave Harris $17,950 in 2015-16, including a $10,000 donation from Steve Berman.

Other senators who signed the amicus brief are Dianne Feinstein, Richard Blumenthal, Mazie Hirono and Edward Markey. Only Blumenthal has received donations from the two firms, having taken $5,400 from Berman and another $250 from one of his employees.

The appeal, as well as New York City’s similar situation in the Second Circuit, has drawn attention from Democrat AGs who support them and Republican AGs who do not. The Trump DOJ also opposes these cases.

From Legal Newsline: Reach editor John O’Brien at

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Organizations in this Story

Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, LLPExxon MobilBritish PetroleumKing County