Challenge to Biden ESG investing rule will stay in Texas court

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) – A federal judge in Texas on Tuesday refused to transfer to another court a lawsuit by Republican states challenging a Biden administration rule allowing socially conscious investing by retirement plans, rejecting claims of “judge shopping.”

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk in Amarillo, Texas, said the Biden administration had provided no evidence that the litigation did not belong in his court or that plaintiffs were attempting to manipulate the process.

By suing in Amarillo, the Republican states ensured that the case would be assigned to Kacsmaryk, an appointee of former U.S. President Donald Trump. His courthouse has become a favored destination for Republicans seeking to challenge aspects of Democratic President Joe Biden’s agenda.

The judge has blocked rules on immigration and protections of gender-affirming procedures for transgender people. He is presiding over a lawsuit by anti-abortion groups seeking to end U.S. sales of the abortion pill mifepristone.

In Tuesday’s case, 25 states along with an oil drilling company and an oil and gas trade group are seeking to block a U.S. Department of Labor rule allowing employee retirement plans to consider environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) factors when investing.

They say the rule, which took effect Jan. 30, jeopardizes the retirement savings of millions of Americans and could lower states’ tax revenue by triggering divestments from the oil and gas industry.

The Labor Department argues the rule is valid because it still requires retirement plans to consider traditional financial factors when choosing investments.

The Biden administration said last month the case had no connection to Amarillo and that the states chose that venue because they knew it would be assigned to Kacsmaryk.

Administration lawyers asked the judge to transfer the lawsuit to Washington, D.C. or the capital of one of the states that sued, such as Austin, Texas.

In response, the states added a business owner who lives in Amarillo as a plaintiff.

Congress in early March voted to repeal the ESG rule, but Biden vetoed that bill.

The rule has divided the business community. Sectors that stand to lose investments, including the oil and gas industry, oppose it while other businesses have voiced support for efforts to make ESG investing easier.

The states in February moved to temporarily block the rule pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

Kacsmaryk is also presiding over a pending lawsuit accusing media companies, including Reuters, of violating federal antitrust laws by working with tech companies to censor content by opponents of COVID-19 vaccines. A Reuters spokesperson has denied the allegations.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Sonali Paul)