The Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case dealing with whether Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) can subpoena e-mails and records from the University of Virginia dealing with the work of a former university climate scientist.
In August, Ablemarle County Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. threw out Cuccinelli’s civil investigative demand, which required that university officials turn over documents related to grants given to global warming researcher Michael Mann, as well as e-mails exchanged between Mann and 39 other staffers and scientists.
Cuccinelli had said he wanted the documents to explore whether a fraud investigation into Mann’s receipt of public funds for his research was warranted, but the University fought the demand, arguing that Cuccinelli was targeting Mann because he disagreed with his research findings and that the probe infringed on academic freedom.
The judge quashed Cuccinelli’s demand, indicating that the attorney general had failed to demonstrate objective reasons to believe that fraud might have been committed.
Cuccinelli rewrote the subpoenas in response — the university is continuing to fight them. But in the meantime, he appealed Peatross’s decision to the state’s Supreme Court.
The court has agreed to hear the appeal, offering both sides the opportunity to make their case to the state’s highest court. The two sides will exchange briefs through the spring on the issue, and the court will hear the case sometime after that.
Cuccinelli has argued that Virginia’s 2002 Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, designed to help root out corrupt public employs, gives him the ability to subpoena any records he needs to help determine whether a civil fraud investigation is warranted.
Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein said the attorney general is pleased that the court has agreed to hear the appeal.
“We look forward to fully briefing the case and arguing it before the full court,” he said in a statement.
The University of Virginia hopes the judges will set limits on the attorney general’s ability to demand documents for a civil probe, particularly in an academic setting.
Professors believe that Cuccinelli is targeting Mann, who now works at Penn State University, because he does not agree with his research conclusions that the earth is warming. Previous investigations of Mann’s work have shown no evidence that he falsified or suppressed data.
U-Va. spokeswoman Carol Wood has also said that the school is pleased with the court’s decision and looks forward to the review.
The university is using private donations to employ outside counsel as they battle Cuccinelli, who in other instances serves as the chief lawyer for the public college.