RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday on the validity of the attorney general's demand for documents related to the work of a former University of Virginia climate-change researcher.
Ken Cuccinelli, a global-warming skeptic, issued a "civil investigative demand" - similar to a subpoena - for copies of e-mails as part of his investigation into whether Michael Mann defrauded taxpayers by using manipulated data to obtain government grants.
A judge ruled that the Cuccinelli failed to adequately say what Mann might have done wrong, and that he lacked authority to investigate federal grants.
"What the attorney general suspects that Dr. Mann did that was false or fraudulent in obtaining funds from the Commonwealth is simply not stated," retired Albemarle County Circuit Judge Paul Peatross said in the August 2010 ruling.
Deputy Attorney General Wesley Russell told the justices that the judge's ruling stemmed from a "fundamental misunderstanding" of the attorney general's authority to investigate whether a violation of the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act occurred.
He said the documents are central to the investigation.
"The attorney general may issue a CID when he has reason to believe that the parties to whom it is sent might have documents that are relevant," Russell said.
Attorneys for the university, however, argued that the attorney general cannot simply demand a university researcher's records without spelling out the alleged wrongdoing.
"The attorney general's CID utterly failed to, as the statute requires, state the conduct that led to the alleged violation," said Chuck Rosenberg, an attorney for the university. "If the nature of the conduct is not stated, the CID fails."
Mann, who now works at Penn State, has been a target of global warming deniers 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.
After Peatross voided Cuccinelli's original CID, 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 issues its decision, which likely will be March 2.
University officials have argued that Cuccinelli's actions could have a chilling effect on academic freedom and scientific research, and that his investigation is an attempt to take aim at Mann's conclusions rather than uncover fraud.
More than 800 college faculty members in Virginia signed a letter protesting the investigation.
The conservative Republican attorney general has said academic freedom is not a legal barrier to a fraud investigation and has denied that his investigation targets Mann's conclusions.