RICHMOND, Va. - The Virginia Supreme Court halted Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli's demand for a former University of Virginia climate researcher's emails Friday, ruling that he lacked authority to subpoena the records.
The ruling is a victory for the university, researcher Michael Mann and higher education officials and faculty who claimed Cuccinelli's "civil investigative demand" threatened to chill academic freedom and scientific research.
Cuccinelli, a global warming skeptic, said he is investigating whether Mann defrauded taxpayers by using manipulated data to obtain government grants. He has said academic freedom should not shield scientists and educators from investigations into whether they might have broken the law.
"From the beginning, we have said that we were simply trying to review documents that are unquestionably state property to determine whether or not fraud had been committed," Cuccinelli said in a statement. "Today, the court effectively held that state agencies do not have to provide state-owned property to state investigators looking into potential fraud involving government funds."
Chuck Rosenberg, the university's attorney, declined immediate comment and Mann did not immediately respond to an email.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy group, lauded the court's decision.
"Certainly, I do think that it's important for the university to be able to protect the privacy of its researchers and the ability of scientists to ask tough questions," said Michael Halpern, the organization's scientific integrity program manager. "This is a victory for science in Virginia."
Mann, who now works at Penn State, has been a target of global warming skeptics for his work that shows the world's temperatures have risen since the early 1900s. Other investigations, including one by the National Science Foundation, have found no wrongdoing by Mann.
Albemarle County Circuit Judge Paul Peatross ruled in August 2010 that Cuccinelli failed to adequately state what Mann might have done wrong, and that he lacked authority to investigate federal grants. Cuccinelli appealed to the Supreme Court.
The justices cited a different reason for ruling against Cuccinelli, saying he lacked authority under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act to issue a civil investigative demand against U.Va. because it is a state agency. The court disagreed with the attorney general's claim that the university can be considered a "person" subject to subpoena under the anti-fraud law.
After Peatross voided Cuccinelli's original demand, the attorney general filed a more specific one that pertains only to a single $214,000 state grant. Another judge put that demand on hold until after the Supreme Court decision. Cuccinelli said Friday he will ask the court to dismiss that investigative demand.
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