Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett—confirmed just ahead of President Donald Trump's 2020 election loss in November—is being called to recuse herself from an upcoming decision regarding a potentially landmark climate case now pending.
"Given Justice Barrett's deep family connections to Shell Oil, and prior recusals from Shell cases, she must do the right thing and recuse herself from this case."
—Richard Wiles, Center for Climate Integrity"Barrett posing as an impartial judge in this hearing for climate accountability is about as safe as the Big Bad Wolf giving Little Red Riding Hood directions to Grandma's house," said Lindsay Meiman, U.S. communications manager at the climate action group 350.org. "We demand Barrett immediately recuse herself of any and all cases concerning climate and the fossil fuel industry, starting with the upcoming Baltimore vs. Big Oil hearing."
The case in question—officially docketed as Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. BP P.L.C. et al.—is a suit by Maryland's largest city about the overt and knowing climate damage committed by oil giants BP, Exxon, Chevron, and Shell—the last of which employed Justice Barrett's father, Michael Coney, as senior attorney for decades.
Climate action groups like 350.org and the Center for Climate Integrity noted Tuesday that a notice in the case from last week indicated Justice Samuel Alito has already recused himself due to financial holdings he has in the fossil fuel industry, but Barrett's name was not mentioned—raising the possibility that she could, despite the clear conflict of interest, participate in a procedural hearing related to case scheduled for January 19.
The Supreme Court will hear procedural arguments next week in Baltimore's climate damages lawsuit against BP, Exxon, Shell and other oil giants.— Mike Meno (@_MikeMeno) January 12, 2021
Will Justice Barrett, whose father was a Shell attorney for decades, recuse herself from the case?https://t.co/ApO9aVRw7J
While Justice Barrett did recuse herself from cases related to Shell while serving on the 7th Circuit federal court, the groups say it would defy logic and ethics for her not to recuse now.
"Given Justice Barrett's deep family connections to Shell Oil, and prior recusals from Shell cases, she must do the right thing and recuse herself from this case," said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity. "Anything less would raise serious ethical questions and tarnish the integrity of the nation's highest court. What would be the rationale for Justice Barrett to recuse herself from cases involving Shell at the 7th Circuit, but not at the highest court in the land?"
Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director in the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Barrett should submit to "both precedent and common sense and join Justice Alito in recusing herself" from the case.
"It's well known that Justice Barrett's father worked for decades as an attorney at Shell Oil, a named defendant in the case," added Mulvey. "He also played an active role in the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's main U.S. lobby group, which is funded by numerous defendants in the Baltimore suit and has submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of their petition to the Supreme Court. These deep and long-standing conflicts of interest have led Justice Barrett to recuse herself from cases regarding Shell in the past. Her obligation to judicial impartiality should lead her to do the same here. Baltimore residents deserve access to impartial justice for the climate harms they are suffering."
With dozens of similar liability lawsuits from states, municipalities, and individual plaintiffs making their way through the courts, the Supreme Court's handling of the Baltimore case could have major import for national climate litigation and industry accountability efforts moving forward.
While next week's court review is not a hearing of the case itself, climate campaigners say fossil fuel companies will stop at nothing to avoid legal liability for their decades of polluting both the planet and the public's understanding of the crisis that their industry has wrought.
"Big Oil's arguments are nothing more than a desperate effort to escape accountability for lying to the public about the climate damages they knew their products would cause," said CCI's Wiles. "The fossil fuel industry is laser-focused on evading justice by throwing up one procedural roadblock after another. Their tortured strategy is only matched by their sordid trail of lies about the climate damage they knowingly caused."