“Extrinsic evidence” from the 1980s: one of the files from the Milwaukee District Office of the Bureau of Land Management appended to Waxman’s 2016 letter to Hilary Tompkins.
Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani signed the December 2017 Department of Interior memo that re-opened the door to sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters, but he probably should not be considered the legal architect of the Boundary Waters reversal. That dubious honor appears to belong to Seth P. Waxman. Or at least the key arguments in Jorjani’s memo seem to be largely derived from a letter Waxman wrote on behalf of Twin Metals to Department of Interior Solicitor Hilary Tompkins back in July of 2016.
Waxman’s name may ring a bell. He has had a distinguished legal and political career. Under President Clinton, he served as Solicitor General of the United States. In the last year of the Bush administration, he made oral arguments before the Supreme Court in Boumedienne v. Bush, to uphold habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo detainees. During the Obama years, his name was even floated as a Supreme Court nominee. Waxman is also a partner at WilmerHale, the powerful DC firm that has led both the lobbying and litigation efforts for Antofagasta, Plc in its bid to renew its mineral leases in Superior National Forest.
Waxman sent his 24 page letter to Hilary Tompkins on July 1, 2016. On the same day, he sent a letter to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. Those letters are included among Department of Interior documents obtained through FOIA. The letter to Tompkins appears to have been the most widely shared. It was attached to an April 27, 2017 email from Raya B. Treiser of WilmerHale to Cathy Gulac, secretary to James Cason, confirming a May 2nd meeting with Antofagasta CEO Ivan Arriagada at Interior. You can follow it from there as it gets attached to other email exchanges and forwarded around.
A handoff from Interior’s Jack Haugrud to a political appointee: Gary Lawkowski, Counselor to the Solicitor. Attached is Seth P. Waxman’s 2016 letter to Solicitor Tompkins.
Waxman’s argument in the letter to Solicitor Tompkins is that Twin Metals has a non-discretionary right to renewal, as dictated by the terms of the leases negotiated by the International Nickel Company and the Bureau of Land Management back in 1966. This is also the conclusion at which Jorjani arrives, and he appears to do so by carefully following Waxman’s lead. Here, I’m going to highlight several places where Waxman’s influence on Jorjani seems undeniable. (To make it easier for others to follow along, I’ve posted the Waxman letter. Jorjani’s memo can be found here.)
To the layman — and I am one, so anything I say here should probably be read in light of that — the very idea of a non-discretionary right to renewal might seem paradoxical, or at least puzzling. Apparently the federal government, and specifically BLM, can “grant” and has twice granted (in 1989 and 2004) the renewal of these mineral leases, but it has no discretion to deny renewal (as long as the company complies with the law). Hobbled, BLM can say yes but not no. Waxman’s argument easily and cleverly explains why this is so. The terms of the 1966 lease, he says, are both “comprehensive” and “unique”, and those unique terms still “govern” (to use the phrase Jorjani prefers) or (in Waxman’s words) “control”:
One of those terms is a right to renew the lease (in fact, to successive renewals). This right is critical to the parties’ overall bargain: The investment required of the lessee under the leases is enormous. But because of recognized operational problems in the area, producing minerals in the short term would have been impossible. The leases thus would serve no rational purpose absent a non-discretionary right to renew; no company would undertake the necessary investment for exploration and development knowing that it could be unilaterally deprived of any ability to recoup that investment. (p. 1)
Of course, it’s possible to think of a rational purpose mineral leases could “thus” serve absent a non-discretionary right to renew. The leases might afford the company an opportunity to explore a mineral resource on public lands within a specified period of time and on certain terms, assess the feasibility of developing the resource, and provide a right to negotiate successive renewals. We can easily imagine circumstances in which the federal government might reserve discretion, and renewal might be contingent on all kinds of things, like changes in environmental conditions, advances in scientific knowledge, evidence of responsible stewardship, or commensurability with other rights. That all sounds perfectly reasonable. There’s no need to insist that a “non-discretionary right” is the only appropriate arrangement, or buy into the view that preserving discretion over renewal confers on government the power to “unilaterally [deprive]” the company of “any ability.”
This is lawyer’s hyperbole, affecting sobriety and marking out an extreme position: the only “rational” course appears to be one that protects the investment of the mining company, from exploration through development. Having entered into a lease agreement with a mining concern, the federal government is now bound to help the company realize a return on its investment. And that would require going way beyond providing incentives. Surrendering all discretion, the government defers entirely to private interests and agrees to relieve the mining company of business risk.
This Extractive Industry First approach is perfectly congruent with Trumpism and its doctrine of Energy Dominance. We see it reflected not just in the Jorjani memo but in some of the changes Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt brought to the Department of Interior. Perhaps Mr. Waxman is a man ahead of his time — by about a year, it seems. But let’s grant, for the moment, Waxman’s position that this non-discretionary right is indeed the “unique” arrangement the 1966 leases set out, and focus instead on the area where Jorjani’s memo relies most heavily on Waxman: in reaching the conclusion that the 1966 leases “govern.” Here is Jorjani’s brief restatement of Waxman’s argument:
Twin Metals is entitled to a third renewal. First, the renewal terms of the 2004 lease form do not govern. The form is ambiguous, and the intent of the parties to keep operative the terms of the 1966 leases becomes clear once the BLM’s decision files are examined. (p. 8)
Jorjani adds in a footnote (number 38) that Solicitor Tompkins’ memo did not examine this “extrinsic evidence” — 1980s decision files from the BLM’s Milwaukee office, which Waxman attached as exhibits to his letter to Hillary Tomkins — “because of its underlying premise that the 2004 lease forms were unambiguous.” This, too, echoes Waxman, and builds on an argument about ambiguity and how to resolve it that Waxman sets out repeatedly in his 2016 letter to Tompkins: “Because the renewal provision in the 2004 standard forms is ambiguous,” he writes, “extrinsic evidence [namely, the 1989 BLM decision files] must be considered” (pp. 22-3). Jorjani returns to the theme several times: “the meaning of the 2004 leases is ambiguous” (p. 11), but those Milwaukee files from the 1980s clear everything up.
Waxman discusses what should be done in such cases of ambiguity: “Where a provision in a contract is ambiguous, courts resort to extrinsic evidence to resolve the ambiguity by ‘determin[ing] the intent and meaning of the parties” (p. 23). Jorjani is on exactly the same page: “where contract terms are unclear or ambiguous, an examination of extrinsic evidence is appropriate to properly interpret the contract in accordance with the parties’ intent” (p. 10). Waxman maintains that “extrinsic evidence must be considered, and it confirms that the parties’ intent in executing the 2004 forms was to re-confirm that Twin Metals has a non-discretionary right to renew” (p. 3). Jorjani, too, discovers the “intent” of the 1966 parties in the 1989 files:
…the meaning of the 2004 leases is ambiguous. Given this ambiguity, extrinsic evidence beyond the ‘four corners’ of the document may be considered to ascertain the intent of the contracting parties. Examining the decision files of the BLM resolves the ambiguity. The record shows that the BLM renewed the leases in 1989 under the same terms as the 1966 leases, and did so again in 2004. (p. 11)
Though both Jorjani and Waxman seize on the same Milwaukee documents to prove intent, neither entertains the possibility that there might be other extrinsic evidence to consider in this case — to illuminate historical context, help clarify why the Milwaukee office took the actions it did in 1989, or throw into relief the different economic and environmental conditions, or different assumptions about public lands and private industry, that obtain in 1966, 1989, 2004, or for that matter now. This isn’t a historical inquiry, after all: it is, instead, a search for proof of intent that will shore up the mining company’s claim. It’s just a little unsettling to see the vast resources of the Department of Interior being marshaled to that purpose, following the lead of Antofagasta’s counsel.
Let’s go back, once more, to this issue of ambiguity. One of the main reasons why the 2004 leases are ambiguous — and why the 1966 leases control, and why the Milwaukee documents are necessary in the first place — is that the 2004 leases lack what is known as an integration clause. A written contract is “integrated” when the parties consider it to constitute their full and complete agreement. Or, as a Jorjani footnote (49) explains, “Integration clauses, also known as merger clauses, are contract provisions that generally state that the agreement as written constitutes the entire agreement between the parties and supersedes any prior representations.” Jorjani cites Corbin on Contracts for his authority; Waxman, Williston on Contracts: the standard lease forms used in 2004 do not “supersede or annul” the 1966 leases (Waxman, p. 11).
As Waxman states at the outset of his letter, this lack of an integration clause is a point Solicitor Tompkins does not “acknowledge” in her M-Opinion (p. 2). Both Waxman and Jorjanil will go to town on this point.
the Opinion asserts (p.6) that the 2004 standard forms are “complete, integrated documents,” and thus their renewal provision governs the analysis here. In making this assertion, the Opinion does not acknowledge the lack of any integration clause in the 2004 standard forms. (p. 7)
…the 1966 leases control. The Opinion’s contrary view depends on its assertion (p.6) that the 2004 forms are “integrated” contracts. But they are not; the 2004 forms lack any integration clause (a point the Opinion does not acknowledge), and there is no other basis on which to conclude that the 2004 forms— divorced from the 1966 leases that the parties attached—were integrated contracts. In light of this, the Opinion’s refusal to consider extrinsic evidence conflicts with established law. (p. 2)
Jorjani picks up on the same phrase (“complete, integrated documents”) in Tompkins’ Opinion, and appears to paraphrase Waxman:
Rather than being “complete, integrated documents,” the leases attach without full explanation the entirety of the 1966 leases and do not include an integration clause that states that the 2004 lease forms are the complete expression of the parties’ agreement. These facts alone warrant an examination of extrinsic evidence to determine the intent of the parties. (p. 10)
Here, in a footnote (number 50), Jorjani cites a 1999 Second Circuit case Waxman uses in his letter (p. 9): Starter Corp. v. Converse, Inc.. “When a contract lacks an express integration clause [courts] must ‘determine whether the parties intended their agreement to be an integrated contract by reading the writing in light of the surrounding circumstances.” That’s Waxman. Jorjani cites the exact same sentence, using brackets, as Waxman does, to substitute “courts” for “district court” in the original text, and putting the word “must” in italics for emphasis.
That two knowledgeable lawyers are appealing to the same legal precedents might not be all that surprising. But it seems pretty clear that this citation, too, is part of a disconcerting pattern.
None of this goes directly to the question of legal merits, or which reading of the Twin Metals leases should or eventually will prevail. Yet something here is seriously amiss. The blueprint followed by the Principal Deputy Solicitor at the Department of Interior to reverse protections for the Boundary Waters appears to have first been drawn by the attorney for a Chilean mining conglomerate. That should raise some questions about ethical conduct, about revolving door access and undue influence, and about whether the opinion Jorjani released in December of 2017 should be allowed to stand.
You can read other posts on the Boundary Waters Reversal here.