The Obama administration's appeal of a decision blocking a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico comes before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today. The administration likely wished for a three-judge panel without ties to the oil and gas industry. But such a panel can be hard to find at the 5th Circuit.
Just in time for the hearing in Hornbeck Offshore Services v. Salazar, the Alliance for Justice has issued a report highlighting the past work and present investments of 5th Circuit judges, including the three serving on today's panel.
The report by the liberal advocacy group, titled "Judicial Gusher: The Fifth Circuit's Ties to Oil," adds up not only the circuit judges' financial interests, but also the kinds of clients they represented in earlier private practice, their attendance at pro-business seminars and other connections.
Among its findings: Two judges on the panel, Jerry Smith and W. Eugene Davis, repeatedly represented the oil and gas industries while in private practice. Smith counted among his clients such big names as the companies now known as Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips Co. and Sunoco Inc. (Both men were appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan so these are not recent cases.)
In their 2008 financial disclosure reports, Davis listed $15,000 to $65,000 in investments in gas and oil, and Smith listed none.
The third judge on the panel, James Dennis, has extensive financial holdings in at least 18 companies in the energy industry worth between $15,000 and $300,000.
The Alliance for Justice report also points out that Dennis did not recuse himself from the attempted en banc rehearing of Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, a class action against energy companies alleging their emission of greenhouse gases "added to the effects of global warming so as to augment the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina" (to quote the alliance). So many judges did recuse that the appeals court found it lacked an en banc quorum, forcing it to reinstate a district court ruling that favored the oil industry.
According to the report, Smith and Davis have also attended one or more all-expense-paid seminars in Montana sponsored by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), a think tank that promotes solving environmental problems more through the market than through regulation and that has counted Exxon among its chief donors.
Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, said in a statement that her group was "alarmed by clear evidence that many judges in the Fifth Circuit are marinating in a pervasive oil culture, raising legitimate questions about potential bias, but also threatening to do great damage to the public's perception of the courts as a haven of fair and impartial justice."
FREE Director John Baden did not return calls for comment, and judges Smith, Davis and Dennis were not available for comment.