Virginia's Ken Cuccinelli's dangerous suit against climate change.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 4 2010 5:21 PM

Suing Science

Virginia's Ken Cuccinelli's dangerous suit against climate change.

Ken Cuccinelli. Click image to expand.
Ken Cuccinelli

"This old buzzard, having failed to raise the mob against its rulers, now prepares to raise it against its teachers."

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

H.L. Mencken
Scopes Monkey Trial
July 16, 1925

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli started the week by attempting to cover up the offending left breast of the Roman goddess Virtus on the Virginia state seal worn on the lapels of his staff. Last night he dropped the effort and issued a statement indicating he'd decided to stop trying to make Virtus more virtuous. Designed by a committee that included George Wythe, George Mason, Robert Carter Nicholas, and Richard Henry Lee, the bare-breasted Virtus has been on the state seal since 1776. A version has been on the state flag since 1861. But when Cuccinelli tried to put Virtus in a burqa this week, the darling of the Tea Party movement explained without irony: "Just because we've always done something a certain way doesn't mean we always have to continue doing it that way."

Seriously?

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The problem with Breastgate was that it distracted from Cuccinelli's other efforts to press the legal machinery of the commonwealth into the service of his own agenda. Between his thwarted attempts to rescind anti-discrimination policies for gays and lesbians at Virginia universities, his one-man lawsuit against Obamacare, his recent approval of a new state policy allowing sectarian prayer by state police chaplains at public events, and his lawsuit suit against the EPA for attempting to regulate greenhouse gases, Ken Cuccinelli has become the Where's Waldo of Fox News stories. But his latest attack—against the University of Virginia's climate science researchers—is more troubling than his assault on bare-breasted Romans.

As Courtney Stuart first reported last week in Charlottesville's The Hook, Cuccinelli's office quietly filed a civil investigative demand (or CID, which is basically a subpoena) with the University of Virginia on April 23, giving the school 30 days to produce more than 10 years' worth of documents related to the state-funded research of a former faculty member, Michael Mann. Operating under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, the CID seeks from the university, among other things, "any correspondence, messages or emails" to or from Mann and 40 named climate scientists; any documents sent to or from Mann that reference any of those 40 scientists; and any "documents, things or data" submitted in support of any of five different grant applications that amounted, in total, to almost $500,000. The university is also expected to turn over "any and all emails or pieces of correspondence from or to Dr. Michael Mann since he left the University of Virginia."

With final exams and graduation just days away, the faculty of the school's environmental science department must now sift through years' worth of old e-mails and attempt to understand the scope of the CID. More important, they must worry about whether their own scientific research will become Cuccinelli's next target.

And who is this nefarious Michael Mann? A climate scientist who worked at UVA from 1999 to 2005 and now runs Penn State's Earth System Science Center. He became the climate-change deniers' whipping boy because of a 1999 paper he co-authored showing a dramatic uptick in surface temperatures after 1900. His temperature graph looks like the blade of a hockey stick. The hockey stick, and Mann, have been on trial ever since.

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