The Chamber of Commerce is coming for your community’s right to seek justice in court
Corporate lobbyists are behind yet another attack on efforts to hold polluters and other bad actors accountable.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
The big story in Arizona this week was a failed attempt by legislators to pass a bill that would hold the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in contempt for not turning over voting machines and ballots to lawmakers who still question the outcome of the presidential election (totally normal stuff). But many might’ve missed another attack on local democracy that came just after: the state’s Senate Government committee voted to pass a bill that would hamstring local governments’ ability to seek justice through the courts.
Arizona’s SB1487 would have a chilling effect on communities’ efforts to hold corporations accountable.
The bill would require Arizona’s attorney general to sign off on all municipal litigation and impose restrictions on the ability of local governments to hire outside counsel. For many communities, that measure would make it virtually impossible for them to bring lawsuits on behalf of their residents.
The restrictions would hamper communities’ ability to bring lawsuits against corporate goliaths, in particular, for the environmental and public health harms they knew their products would cause — including opioids, wastewater contaminants, asbestos, and yes, the climate damages caused by fossil fuel products. Just last year, Arizona battled an onslaught of devastating wildfires fueled by climate change, bringing into sharp relief exactly what Arizonans are facing thanks to the fossil fuel industry’s deception.
As opponents of the bill pointed out during Monday’s hearing, forcing municipalities to pay for lawyers up front (as opposed to through contingency fees) would make it nearly impossible for smaller communities and those suffering from structural inequalities — often those who have paid most dearly for these industries’ profiteering — to get the relief they need and demand justice.
“At the heart of these cases is the fact that corporations knew their products would hurt our communities,” Senator Juan Mendez explained in his decision to vote against the bill. “They continued business as usual, deceiving the public with no regard to who they hurt... [If this bill is passed], we won’t be able to help people who’ve been wronged.”
Arizona’s bill is not unique. It’s part of a nationwide strategy by powerful industry-funded lobbying groups to shut down accountability.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen legislation that would block essential avenues for local governments to hold corporations accountable for wreaking havoc on their communities. In fact, bills that would have been a body blow to municipal litigation have sprung up in Kansas, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas over the past two years. So what on earth is the deal here?
It just so happens that in 2019, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a powerful lobbying group representing many of the same corporations that now face a reckoning in court — published a report through its Institute for Legal Reform encouraging state legislatures to take a wide range of actions to deter municipalities from seeking justice. Those actions include “preempting municipalities’ power to bring suits” and “disincentivizing localities from bringing suit.”
The Chamber lays out its scheme in detail: “Local governments continue to outsource cases to those law firms because the municipalities are typically ill-equipped to carry on complex litigation, lacking the necessary personnel, resources, specialized knowledge, or experience,” the report reads. “Given that few local governments can maintain a suit on their own, a state may be able to discourage most municipal plaintiffs simply by prohibiting them from hiring outside counsel or limiting their discretion to do so.” Sound familiar?
Well surprise, surprise: the only person who showed up to testify in favor of Arizona’s bill was a representative of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.
It’s no coincidence that these bills have popped up in the wake of a variety of product liability lawsuits, from opioids and MBTE-added gasoline to lead and asbestos. In 2018 and 2019, cities and counties across Arizona filed suits against opioid companies and their distributors—actions that would have been impossible if SB1487 were law. The Chamber-backed report also recommended this strategy as a growing number of liability lawsuits were filed against the fossil fuel industry. (Makes sense since the Chamber has always buoyed Big Oil’s efforts to block climate action, from Congress to the Supreme Court.)
The Chamber’s efforts to restrict court access entirely undermine one of the court’s most primary functions, which is to ensure that individuals and communities can recover damages from corporations when they’ve been wronged. “If voters elected council members and council supervisors to act in the best interest of their communities,” Senator Mendez asked during Monday’s hearing, “why are we requiring them to seek state approval when seeking legal recourse for harms that are affecting their communities?”
The answer, unfortunately, is crystal clear: groups like the Chamber know exactly how this works. They know that many states have attorneys general that are political opponents of these efforts at justice (let’s not forget the role a front group for the Republican Attorneys General Association played in organizing the Capitol riot.) And they know exactly how much is at stake.
Local governments know best the urgent fiscal needs and financial burdens of their communities. They can’t afford to — and shouldn’t have to — jump through additional hoops to take action and get the justice and accountability they deserve.
And now for something completely different: your #ExxonKnew haikus!
Last week, we put out a call for your best haikus to celebrate our passion for holding climate polluters accountable this Valentine’s Day. We were delighted, inspired and occasionally dismayed (some of these were very sad, you guys) by your creative contributions! A few of our favorites, below:
Exxon knew the truth
Over 50 years ago
Then lied to us all
— Sam L.
Is what keeps me up at night
Let us make them pay
— Lindsay M.
Profiting off death,
Oil execs always knew.
This is the hard truth.
— Clay B.
— Christy O.
We love to see it:
An age of consequences
For what #ExxonKnew
— Adam P.
They knew and they lied
About catastrophic harm
And now they should pay
— Phil G.
Big Oil, Little heart.
Karma, like Mother Nature,
Knows how to bide time.
— Ann L.
We want more reader participation of all forms! If you ever have story ideas you want to pitch , questions about something you read, or, I don’t know, leftover haikus, send them my way: firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t forget to share with your friends and loved ones, and follow us on Twitter @Exxon_Knew and @climatecosts! ❤️
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