In July 2018, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) stood next to Rhode Island’s Attorney General, announcing that the law firm Sher Edling LLP will represent the state in a lawsuit against energy producers over the issue of climate change. Less than a year later, Senator Whitehouse filed an amicus brief on behalf of Sher Edling LLP, defending their California plaintiffs.
But Senator Whitehouse never spoke about another interesting detail: Victor Sher and Matt Edling, the two California lawyers representing most of the plaintiffs targeting energy companies in climate liability lawsuits across the country, started making thousand-dollar donations to Senator Whitehouse in late 2016 – almost two full years before the Rhode Island case was announced.
On Monday morning, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial highlighting this situation:
“In January Mr. Whitehouse filed an amicus with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals supporting plaintiffs who want climate-change lawsuits filed by California localities to be heard in state (not federal) court. Mr. Whitehouse did not disclose that he has received donations from two parties in the litigation. The Senator’s office did not respond to requests for comment.” (emphasis added)
The discovery creates an ironic twist in Senator Whitehouse’s climate advocacy.
Senator Whitehouse has boldly called for heightened transparency in the judicial process, while also attacking “dark money groups” and conflicts of interest that the public could not adequately assess. Senator Whitehouse has said that entities filing amicus briefs on climate litigation should disclose their donors, particularly if their donors include any parties involved in the litigation.
In response to the Journal’s editorial, Whitehouse penned a letter, declaring,
“We need more transparency so the public, the parties and the Justices can identify bias and conflicts of interest.”
Senator Whitehouse reiterated that his campaign contributions are accessible online, but didn’t address the criticism of his failure to disclose his donors in the context of his own calls for reform.
The Senator says that amicus briefs, funded by special interest groups, are unjustly influencing the Court, adding that the legal system is riddled with bias and conflicts of interest. Yet his own amicus brief failed to note his own financial ties to the lawyers who stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars should they win their cases.