Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann stepped out of a courthouse in Manassas, Virginia, on Tuesday with a smile on his face. After a surprisingly contentious hearing that lasted most of the day, Prince William County Circuit Court Judge Gaylord Finch had granted his petition to join his former employer, the University of Virginia (UVA), in fighting a lawsuit seeking access to thousands of e-mails Mann sent as a professor there between 1999 and 2005.
“This is great news,” Mann said. “I have no complaints about the way things turned out today.”
The conservative American Tradition Institute (ATI) filed the lawsuit in May, seeking to follow up on a similar investigation launched last year by Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. The latter case is currently pending before the Virginia Supreme Court. Both initiatives have their roots in the scandal over e-mails leaked from the University of East Anglia in 2009, which fueled scepticism about global warming despite various reviews that have cleared Mann and other scientists of misconduct allegations.
At Tuesday’s hearing, attorneys representing Mann and UVA went on the offensive. Mann’s attorney, Peter Fontaine of the firm Cozen O’Connor, called ATI an extreme right-wing group bent on attacking climate scientists and preventing any kind of action on global warming. After documenting links to various conservative organizations, Fontaine said ATI is part of a “shadowy political network that is largely funded by petroleum companies.”
Attorney David Schnare, director of ATI’s Environmental Law Center, called the accusations baseless. “It doesn’t matter who we represent,” he said, “because we are citizens of Virginia.”
The question before the court is which e-mails are subject to the state’s freedom-of-information law. UVA has already released many of the more innocuous e-mails, but the university says most of the correspondence falls under an exemption for academic research. ATI disagrees.
Back in May UVA signed an agreement that would allow ATI to review even the exempt correspondence as the court prepares to take up the matter. Various scientific groups objected, however, and on Tuesday UVA attorneys requested that the court nullify that agreement and start over.
In explaining why the university was seeking to back out of its agreement, UVA attorney Richard Kast said he no longer trusts ATI to keep the e-mails confidential as would be required if Schnare and fellow attorney Chris Horner were allowed to review them prior to public disclosure. Kast alleged that Schnare misled university officials about his position representing ATI, about his former employment with the US Environmental Protection Agency and about whether he had permission from the EPA to work as an attorney on such a case.
Schnare again dismissed the accusations and said he never transgressed EPA rules, even if the detailed paperwork might not have been in order. He went on to argue that, as it stands, only UVA officials and Mann have seen the e-mails, which puts ATI at an inherent disadvantage in the case. “We’re the ones who are at risk to be rolled here,” Schnare said.
Judge Finch listened to all of this and then granted UVA’s request to revisit the earlier agreement, citing obvious distrust among the parties. He gave the parties until 20 December to reach a new accord on how to go about reviewing the e-mails; if they fail to do so, Finch said, the court may take over. And this is just the first step in what is likely to be a long legal battle. Regardless of how the judge rules, both sides said an appeal is likely.
Initially worried when UVA granted ATI access to his e-mails, Mann says he is pleased that he and the university are now on the same legal page. But he nonetheless wants to maintain his own representation going forward — along with some funding from a new organization called the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. “Universities are often quite limited in what they can do when academics are under attack,” Mann says. “These sceptic groups are trying to exploit that.”