Will the Supreme Court Ever Give Global Warming Victims a Fair Shake?

A new analysis of the Roberts-era Supreme Court shows an extreme pro-corporate bias on our nation’s highest bench.

So it seems Katrina victims who are trying to appeal their climate lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court aren’t likely to get a fair shake, even if the bench agrees to hear their arguments in the first place.

Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones took a look at Chief Justice John Roberts’ record over the past five years and compared it to the position endorsed by self-proclaimed “voice of business” — and notorious climate denier — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Drum found that Roberts has “sided with the Chamber 70% of the time. In close cases he’s sided with the Chamber a stunning 90% of the time.”

And it’s not just Roberts. Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia ruled in lock step with the Chamber more than 70 percent of the time as well, with Alito earning a perfect record in close cases. Justice Clarence Thomas and even the more moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy ruled in line with the Chamber of Commerce position in nearly 70 percent of cases too.

Drum’s point is that despite trying to portray themselves as unbiased arbiters of the law, the conservatives on the bench are anything but. As Drum puts it: “Ideology matters. In fact, when it comes to business issues, conservative judges make far more fervent ideologues than liberals. Caveat emptor.”

So what might this mean for the group of New Orleans residents who sued several major oil and gas companies for business practices that cause climate change and exacerbated the Hurricane Katrina disaster? Last week, Change.org’s Ben Buchwalter told us about a federal appeals court verdict to deny them the right to sue. Now, they hope to appeal their case, Comer v. Murphy Oil, to the nation’s highest arbiter.

How might the Roberts bench feel about this? We actually have a pretty good example of the Supreme Court’s ideological bias to apply here: Exxon v. Baker, a case that Exxon won against a group of Alaskan plaintiffs who lost their homes and livelihoods when the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. The Supreme Court ruling, issued in 2008, lowered Exxon’s liability from about $2.5 billion to just over $500 million, about a tenth of the original verdict.

As one journalist put it, this was all the punishment the Supreme Court saw fit to hand down to Exxon for “recklessly putting a known alcoholic in charge of a supertanker traveling a treacherous channel.” So it’s hard to imagine they’ll be too eager to hold global warming polluters accountable for recklessly spewing carbon pollution into the atmosphere.

It’s also worth noting that Justice Alito had to recuse himself from the Exxon v. Baker case because he owns a block of Exxon stock.

Such a conflict of interest would be nothing new to the plaintiffs in the Comer v. Murphy Oil case, as half of the judges on the federal 5th Circuit appeals court also had to recuse themselves in a similar fashion. With half the judges begging off the case, the court didn’t have enough black robes left to make a real decision.

So it doesn’t look good for the Katrina victims who are hoping to hold climate polluters accountable. And I don’t even want to think of what precedent this all sets for the thousands of Gulf Coast residents who are now hurting thanks to BP’s spill.

Image credit: dbking

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