How close is too close? Wife of judge in Cuccinelli climate case was employed by UVA

by Jordan Bloom and Bert Mueller on September 29, 2010

The wife of Paul Peatross, the judge who rejected Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s recent inquiry of climate scientist Michael Mann, was employed by the University of Virginia Department of Environmental Science since graduating from there in 1982, a fact the judge failed to disclose prior to hearing the case. Mann worked in the same department from 1999-2005.

Information obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request indicates that Judith Peatross earned $92,600 between 1985 and 1993 as a “part-time public relations assistant specialist” for the department. In 1997, she returned to UVA and worked as a master teacher in the Summer Enrichment Program. From 1997 to 2004 she earned $19,560 in this capacity.

“She worked part-time as an Information Officer for the Department of Environmental Sciences for the years indicated. She also worked for the U.S Geological Survey and several publishing companies in New York during that same period. At no time did she work for the State Office of Climatology, which was separate from the Department of Environmental Sciences. She has never met Michael Mann,” Judge Peatross clarified in an e-mail.

Peatross ruled against the Attorney General in his “climategate”-inspired quest to investigate whether Mr. Mann had committed fraud while soliciting state funds for research. However, the ruling left the opportunity for Mr. Cuccinelli to re-file the case. “The Attorney General has the right to investigate if he meets the other requirements of the statute,” wrote Peatross. The Judge stated that Cuccinelli failed to show a sufficient “reason to believe” that UVA possessed documents that would demonstrate Mann had committed fraud.

Global warming skeptic and author Chrisopher Horner covered the trial and noted Judge Peatross’ wife’s connection to the school after the trial. He was surprised the Judge had not revealed his wife’s employment or recused himself from the case.

“It seems to clearly 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 possibly biased,” said a post on Mr. Horner’s blog. Although Mr. Horner did not allege that Judge Peatross’ judgement was influenced by his wife’s employment, he was skeptical that this information did not come to light until after the trial.

Judge Peatross did disclose that his wife had received her degree in environmental sciences from UVA in 1982.

The Canons of Judicial Conduct for Virginia state “A judge shall not allow family, social, political or other relationships to influence the judge’s judicial conduct or judgment.”

Earlier this year, Cuccinelli issued a Civil Investigative Demand requesting all records relating to Michael Mann, allegedly in order to determine whether any of five grants were sought using fraudulent data, in violation of Virginia’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. Only one of those grants was at the state level, meaning that the majority of the funds used would be outside the purview of the act. Judge Peatross noted this flaw in his opinion.

After initially cooperating, UVA challenged the inquiry, saying it violates a “bedrock principle” of academic freedom. The Judge stated that in this case there was insufficient evidence that any fraud had occurred. Independent ethics panels have also cleared Mann of any wrongdoing.

The Attorney General’s office declined comment for this article.

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