NEW YORK A U.S. appeals court on Thursday rejected a bid by Ecuadorean villagers to remove a judge overseeing a trial next month in a decades-old dispute between the villagers and Chevron Corp.
At the trial, Chevron is seeking to prove that the Ecuadoreans and a lawyer who works on their behalf used fraud and bribery to obtain an $18 billion pollution award against Chevron in an Ecuadorean court.
Lawyers for the Ecuadoreans have said U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is overseeing the upcoming trial, has disregarded a ruling in their favor by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and asked for him to be replaced.
In a brief order on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the appeals court denied the request.
The judges gave no reasoning in their order, but at a hearing hours earlier the judges suggested the request was premature.
The Ecuadoreans will be able to appeal if they lose at trial, Circuit Judge Barrington Parker said at the hearing. "You can come back here and get that judgment set aside," Parker said. "If you're right, you'll win."
Another circuit judge, Debra Ann Livingston, questioned what was "so extraordinary" to warrant action by the appeals court before the trial, scheduled for October 15, has even started.
Christopher Gowen, a lawyer for the Ecuadoreans, said the 2nd Circuit's ruling had failed to stop an "impending travesty" of justice, and called on Kaplan to empanel a jury rather than decide the case alone.
Morgan Crinklaw, a spokesman for Chevron, said the company is pleased with the ruling.
The case stems from environmental contamination in the Amazon jungle between 1964 and 1992 by Texaco, which Chevron bought in 2001.
An Ecuadorean court awarded the plaintiffs - people affected by the contamination - $18 billion in 2011.
That year, Kaplan issued an injunction blocking enforcement of the judgment. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed that order, saying in part that it would encourage people to challenge the legitimacy of foreign courts in New York.
Kaplan's decisions ahead of the upcoming trial violated that 2nd Circuit decision, according to the arguments rejected by the appeals court on Thursday.
The case is In Re Hugo Geraldo Camacho, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 13-772.
(Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Eddie Evans and Tim Dobbyn)