Judge presiding over Big Oil climate change lawsuit reveals connection to plaintiff’s eco lawyers
‘You’re talking about a judge who clearly has a bias,’ energy policy expert tells Fox News Digital
The Hawaii state judge presiding over a high-stakes climate change casebetween the City of Honolulu and several multinational oil corporations is facing calls for recusal over his indirect relationship to plaintiffs.
Mark Recktenwald, the chief justice of the Hawaii State Supreme Court, quietly disclosed this month that he presented for an April course in collaboration with the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) Climate Judiciary Project. According to the ELI, the project is designed to educate judges across the country on how to handle climate change litigation that comes before them.
“With growing public concern about climate change and stasis on the issue in Congress, groups pressing for climate action are seeking a way forward through the courts,” the group states on its website. “As the body of climate litigation grows, judges must consider complex scientific and legal questions, many of which are developing rapidly.”
“Our shared vision is to make available to federal, state, and local judges the basic science they need to adjudicate the climate litigation over which they preside.”
The ELI, though, boasts numerous connections to Sher Edling, the eco law firm representing Honolulu and a number of other jurisdictions, including Minnesota, New Jersey, New York City, and San Francisco, in similar climate nuisance cases against oil corporations in which plaintiffs argue the fossil fuel industry has spearheaded a decades-long campaign of deception about global warming risks.
Sher Edling — founded in 2017 specifically to represent “states, cities, public agencies, and businesses in high-impact, high-value environmental cases,” according to its website — has also received funding from left-wing organizations like the MacArthur Foundation and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation which have both funded ELI.
“A grant to the Environmental Law Institute will support the Climate Judiciary Project, which was launched in 2019,” the MacArthur Foundation explains as the rationale for a $500,000 contribution to the ELI in 2020.
“The goal of the project is to increase judges’ understanding of the objective facts of climate science as it is understood by the expert scientific community, and how the lack of information would result in serious consequences for human and natural systems,” it continues. “This will lead to better-informed decisions and ultimately build a body of law supporting climate action.”
The organization has also given at least $350,000 to the Collective Action Fund, a fund established to support climate litigation and which has wired millions of dollars to Sher Edling. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has given at least $260,000 to ELI and $3 million to the Collective Action Fund.
In addition to sharing some funding streams, ELI and Sher Edling have also hired the same personnel.
For example, Ann Carlson, President Biden’s pick to lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), served on ELI’s board of directors for years while also “providing pro bono consulting” for Sher Edling on litigation against oil companies, financial disclosures showed.
“The judge in Hawaii clearly has a conflict of interest and needs to recuse himself from the case,” Kathleen Sgamma, the president of fossil fuel industry group Western Energy Alliance, told Fox News Digital. “It reveals the corrupt web that Ann Carlson, Biden’s nominee to lead NHTSA, weaves.”
“She raised money to fund these climate change lawsuits, recruited cities like Honolulu to bring these cases, and even helped train the judge who’s hearing this case,” Sgamma said. “They’ve woven such a tangled web that there’s no ‘integrity’ in the process at all. It’s a climate change racket where the plaintiff and judge are working together to advance an agenda through the courts.”
Sher Edling counsel Michael Burger has also participated in multiple ELI events and former Sher Edling lawyer Meredith Wilensky was previously an ELI Public Interest Law Fellow, according to the Daily Caller which first reported the ties between ELI and Sher Edling.
Additionally, ELI Climate Judiciary Project curriculum advisers and event presenters include officials from the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, such as its director Michael Gerrard and associate director Jessica Wentz, which has filed amicus briefs and reports arguing in favor of the climate nuisance cases.
Robin Craig, a University of Southern California professor and leading ELI curriculum contributor, said last year that during the institute’s training sessions, “judges can ask questions and discuss topics openly without maintaining the neutrality required in court.”
The Hawaii case, in which Sher Edling is suing Sunoco, ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, Chevron and other petroleum companies on behalf of Honolulu and its surrounding county, landed before Recktenwald in March after defendants appealed a lower court ruling rejecting a motion to dismiss the lawsuit altogether and allowing the case to proceed to trial. The case is the farthest-along climate nuisance across the country.
And, in another setback for oil industry defendants, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request to allow such climate nuisance cases to be heard in federal court. The decision gives Recktenwald a potentially major role in the most advanced first-of-its-kind climate change lawsuit nationwide.
“This shows the level of sophistication, the level of funding and the relationships — the cozy relationships that exist in this crowd,” Tom Pyle, the president of the Institute for Energy Research, told Fox News Digital in an interview. “You’re talking about a judge who clearly has a bias. It shows one of the reasons why these cases probably should have been kicked up to the federal level.”
“This judge should not have any involvement in this case whatsoever just on the information that’s publicly available,” Pyle continued. “If this judge had a history or a relationship with a conservative organization like the Federalist Society or something similar, then the left would be going apoplectic about this. And yet nobody really bats an eye.”
In his disclosure earlier this month, Recktenwald publicly shared the slide deck for his ELI presentation titled “Rising Seas and Litigation: What Judges Need to Know About Warming-Driven Sea Level Rise.” The chief justice spoke about a number of ongoing climate nuisance suits and discussed arguments plaintiffs have made in court, the slide deck showed.
He additionally stated he will present in June about climate litigation in his leadership role with the Conferences of Chief Justices and Chief Court Administrators. The presentation is titled “Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Disputes: The Use of Special Masters in Resolving Complex Litigation.”
The chief justice gave parties until Friday to file objections to his involvement in the case in light of his disclosures.
Recktenwald’s disclosure notably failed to mention that he also presented at a December ELI webinar titled “Hurricanes in a Changing Climate and Related Litigation.”
“Green groups have tried, and in many areas succeeded, at owning the courts knowing it is the only way to implement their agenda,” Daniel Turner, the founder and executive director of Power the Future, told Fox News Digital.
“But you’d expect a level of impartiality and integrity in the judges in their myriad lawsuits,” Turner continued. “If the oil and gas industry held fancy conferences for judges we’d be excoriated in the press. If judges can be bought, then our legal system is in the hand of foreign funders just like these green groups are.”
The ELI, Sher Edling and Recktenwald didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Thomas Catenacci is a politics writer for Fox News Digital.