June 26, 2008
By KRISTEN HAYS
Lawyers for victims of the deadly 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City refinery today asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block any action on a blast-related criminal plea deal so they can argue before the high court that it should be scrapped.
The plaintiffs' lawyers asked the high court to prohibit U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal in Houston from accepting or rejecting the plea so they can seek a Supreme Court review of whether the deal should be thrown out because prosecutors didn't properly consult victims while crafting it.
If Rosenthal accepts the plea before they seek review, blast victims will lose their last appeal option in their push to erase the deal, the filing said.
"A stay is necessary to preserve the status quo and avoid irreparable injury to the victims," it said.
BP said the company will file a brief with the Supreme Court opposing a stay. "If the Supreme Court denies the stay, we will then respectfully request that Judge Rosenthal render a decision on the plea agreement," spokesman Ronnie Chappell said.
More than a month ago, the judge got the go-ahead from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rule on the plea deal, but she hasn't ruled or scheduled any hearings.
Time is short for the victims to present their case to the Supreme Court. The current Supreme Court session ends next week, and justices won't reconvene until October.
At issue is the victims' contention that under a 2004 victim rights law, federal prosecutors should have consulted them before striking a plea deal with BP last October. Prosecutors counter that alerting victims beforehand could make plea negotiations public, possibly prejudicing BP's right to a fair trial if a deal couldn't be reached.
Rosenthal ruled earlier this year that the conferral right under the Crime Victims Rights Act doesn't give victims the right to approve or reject a proposed plea in advance or to participate in plea talks.
Victims appealed her ruling to the 5th Circuit. That three-judge panel agreed that the victims' rights under the act were violated, but declined to order Rosenthal to reject the plea deal.
The deal calls for BP's North American products division to plead guilty to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act, pay a $50 million fine and serve three years' probation. Blast victims say the deal is too lenient, particularly the fine, and have called for BP to pay $200 million to $1 billion.
Any fine would go to the U.S. Treasury.
While Rosenthal ruled on the victim right issue in February, she has yet to rule on whether the proposed $50 million fine is sufficient.