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March 1, 2019

Something to Chew On

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(Transcript from today’s proceedings)

Here is an interesting tidbit to chew on over the weekend. In light of Judge Vince Chhabria’s unusual handling of the first Roundup cancer lawsuit to come to trial in federal court, (see previous entries for bifurcation and other background) and the vitriol with which he has been addressing plaintiff Edwin Hardeman’s legal counsel, many observers have asked – what gives? The bifurcation, his decision to sanction plaintiff’s lead counsel, his threat to dismiss the case entirely, and his repeated comments about how “shaky” the plaintiffs’ evidence is, obviously appear to favor Monsanto’s defense, at least in the early stages of the trial.Could there be some connection between Chhabria and Monsanto?

Chhabria has a pretty stellar background. Born and raised in California, he obtained his law degree in 1998 from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, graduating with honors. He served as law clerk for two federal judges and for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and worked as an associate for two law firms before joining the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office where he worked from 2005 to 2013. He was nominated by President Obama for the seat he holds now in the summer of 2013.

But interestingly, one of those law firms where Chhabria worked has raised eyebrows. Covington & Burling, LLP, is a well-known defender of a variety of corporate interests, including Monsanto Co. Covington was reportedly instrumental in helping Monsanto defend itself against dairy industry concerns over the company’s synthetic bovine growth hormone supplement, known as rBGH (for recombinant bovine growth hormone) or the brand name Posilac.

Chhabria worked at the firm between 2002-2004, a time period when Monsanto’s legal battle over Posilac was in high gear. The firm was reportedly involved in the issue in part by “sending letters to virtually all U.S. dairy processors, warning that they faced potential legal consequences if they labeled their consumer products as “rBGH-Free.”

Covington is perhaps best known for its work for the tobacco industry. A judge in Minnesota in 1997 ruled that the firm was willfully disregarding court orders to turn over certain documents pertaining to claims that the tobacco industry engaged in a 40-year conspiracy to mislead the public about the health impacts of smoking and hide damaging scientific research from public view.

Shortly before Obama selected Chhabria for his federal judgeship, an array of former Covington & Burling attorneys took spots in the administration, including Attorney General Eric Holder and deputy chief of staff Daniel Suleiman. It was reported that employees of the law firm contributed more than $340,000 to Obama’s campaign.

Chhabria’s tenure at Covington was short, to be sure. There is no apparent evidence Chhabria ever represented Monsanto’s interests directly. But he is also no stranger to the world of corporate power and influence. How those dots connect in this case is so far unclear.