Judge Paul Peatross has ruled that Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli cannot access the University of Virginia’s records in his inquiry into Michael “Hockey Stick” Mann’s claims made to obtain research funding. Judge Peatross’s ruling protects the University, Mann, and the Department of Environmental Sciences — at least for now.
I attended the hearing a week ago Friday, when the parties argued the University’s motion to dismiss. Beforehand, Peatross, in place of the vacationing chief judge, cited his wife’s 1982 degree in environmental science from UVA and asked counsel whether they believed it disqualified him from hearing the University’s motion.
That fact, apparently, was relevant. Okay.
But the fact that the judge’s wife previously worked in the Department of Environmental Sciences — the very department that stood to suffer had he ruled in favor of the attorney general – was somehow not worth disclosing to counsel. I learned of this only after the hearing from Ms. Peatross’s former coworkers, who were astonished that her husband would decide such a matter given his seeming lack of objectivity.
Also not worth disclosing was that Ms. Peatross’s relationships go much deeper, for she produced a book edited by the department’s then-chairman during Mann’s alleged hijinks, and, it appears, at least two of his papers. Yet the fact that she has a degree from the department merited consideration in determining the judge’s suitability to hear the case. And only that.
Charlottesville, where I live, is a company town – with UVA the company – as is surrounding Albemarle County. An adverse ruling leading to the release of Mann’s documents was the biggest possible black eye for a university that zealously promotes its prestige derived, in part, from Thomas Jefferson’s having founded it. It’s a history the school’s lawyers rather sadly invoked in their brief. They argued that, while some people are subject to laws, others simply cannot suffer the indignity.
It’s on Jefferson’s headstone, no doubt. But while that particular argument of “academic freedom” did not prevail, the University did manage to avoid letting the taxpayer discover whether the university, through Mann, engaged in fraud. Again, this is for now, as Attorney General Cuccinelli, according to press reports, intends to press on with a new civil investigative demand. It was not a complete victory for the university, but, if you attended argument and/or read the briefs, you know such an outcome was not a consideration.
However that turns out, this series of events gives the appearance of the judge’s failure to disclose. Indeed, it seems to rise to the level of a basis for the judge to recuse himself, instead of asking counsel, in his presence, whether they thought he was biased. The last thing our institutions of government need is more reason to question their operation. This is unfortunate and could easily have been avoided.