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GOP: What Big Oil Needs is More Legal Protection in the Gulf

Big Oil has been whispering sweet nothings in the GOP's ear. How else can you explain the ridiculously biased proposal to secure Teflon-like legal protection for oil companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico?

Tucked inside the GOP-crafted Offshore Production and Safety Act of 2011 -- which failed to pass the Senate this week -- there's a seemingly innocuous paragraph that would have made the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Court in New Orleans the exclusive venue for all civil lawsuits regarding energy projects in the Gulf, a story first reported by Mother Jones.

What's the problem? The judges on the Fifth Circuit Court aren't exactly unbiased. As Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted in a statement Wednesday many of these judges have strong ties (financial and otherwise) to the energy industry.

The majority of active judges serving on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals have a financial interest in energy corporations that would likely require their recusal in a lawsuit filed under this proposed legislation.
Leahy has a point. Last year, eight of the 16 active judges on the Fifth Circuit recused themselves from hearing an en banc appeal of Comer v. Murphy Oil USA , a controversial global-warming lawsuit filed by property owners against energy and chemical companies. Without a quorum, the court was unable to hear the case.

The judges weren't required to explain why they recused themselves. However, federal law provides a clue. Judges have to recuse themselves if their impartiality might be reasonably question or if they (or a family member) has a financial interest in the particular subject matter.

Judicial oil connections
So, are these "financial" holdings really that big a deal? Well, in a word, yes. Let's take the Fifth Circuit's Judge Martin Feldman as an example. Feldman, who overturned President Obama's offshore drilling moratorium last year, owned stock in numerous energy companies including Transocean (RIG), the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded in the Gulf. According to his 2009 financial disclosure, he had financial investments in numerous energy-related corporations including Exxon (XOM), which he sold prior to the opening of the oil spill moratorium case.

Feldman is hardly alone. Prior to joining the Fifth Circuit, Judge Jerry Edwin Smith was a civil litigator who represented Exxon and ConocoPhillips among others. He also attended a Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment (FREE) seminar. The think tank, which receives funding by oil companies and promotes free-market environmentalism, offers all-expense paid trips to federal judges to attend its judicial seminars.

And the list goes on. It doesn't get much better even looking beyond the Fifth Circuit. According to an AP analysis last year, 37 of the 64 active or senior judges in key Gulf Coast districts have financial ties to energy companies.

Image from wikimedia commons
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