Virginia Senate Democrats recently submitted their demands for the state budget, and in a stroke of inspiration, included compensating the University of Virginia $576,000 for its legal costs in fighting Attorney General Cuccinelli’s appalling legal assault on it.
In the grand scheme of an $85 billion budget, this is a relatively small item and I suspect that even some of the Senators who submitted this demand may just see it as a political gimmick to get some publicity and impress key constituents. Here’s why it needs to be treated as much more than that:
Our Attorney General, acting officially in the name of every citizen of the Commonwealth, tried to inject the powerful hand of government into a scientific matter. As the Virginia Supreme Court found in its slapdown of him, he wrongly tried to use a state statute aimed at prosecuting cases of fraud against the government to actually criminalize a climate scientist for engaging in fully legitimate research. The Supreme Court threw his trumped-up case out based on the threshold issue that the University was not covered under the fraud statute — meaning that this was at a minimum an instance of unbelievable official incompetence which cost a great Virginia university money, time and aggravation for no reason other than raw politics.
But I am confident that even had Cuccinelli not read the statute wrongly, this case still would have been thrown out because it was so offensive to our traditions of over two centuries of academic freedom. I have made this argument enough times here — and it has been adopted by so many others, like the Washington Post — that I won’t bore you with it again.
The point today is that our state committed a clear wrong against an innocent institution, in a case that our very own Supreme Court found to be frivolous at best. In such a situation, it is the job of the state to make amends and try to make up for its errors. This is necessary not only for the sake of justice, but also to send an unmistakable message that our government made a mistake and is willing to pay for the harm it caused. Most important would be the intended deterrent effect — to send a message that no future state officials, be they Democratic, Republican or Independent, should ever again attempt to legally assault an academic institution for engaging in pure academic work.
You may say that this is just a principle and hence not something for which the taxpayers should foot the bill. But these principles are fundamental to what America means to itself and to the world. We decided long ago that we would not tolerate a government that arbitrarily picks on people, groups or organizations, whether for reasons of politics, personal resentments or prejudices. In cases where this has happened in America — e.g., the internment of Japanese during World War II, J. Edgar Hoover’s spying for political purposes, Richard Nixon using the IRS to harass his enemies — our government has generally tried to right the wrongs and make amends, usually when driven to do so by public outcries.
What Cuccinelli did would serve as a horrendous precedent if allowed to stand as such. So it’s important for Virginia to make a statement of support for UVA that makes clear that his shameful act never be allowed to serve as a precedent for anyone.
If the state fails to compensate U-VA, I would encourage the university to sue the state to the extent it may be allowed to do so by law. But best to avoid the mess of litigation and call your senators — and heck, the governor too — to demand that the state immediately make up for this wrongheaded attack on a university it should be supporting and encouraging, not harassing.