Saturday, September 12, 2009

The "Climate-Made-Me-Do-It" Defense

First came the insanity defense. Then came the "Twinkie defense." That was followed by "the O.J. defense" -- "You must acquit if the glove doesn't fit." Now comes "the-climate-made-me-do-it" defense (also known as the "save-the-planet" defense).

Tim DeChristopher is a college student and monkey-wrencher who recently made a name for himself by making bogus bids on oil and gas leases in Utah, with no intention of paying, as a seemingly-clever way to protest drilling. But the prank went awry. Rather than laugh the stunt off, the federal government pressed charges, correctly arguing that this was an act of fraud. It was good the feds didn't just slap him on the wrist, because that would encourage copy cats and draw loud protest from energy companies, to whom this isn't a game. But the charges also mean the circus has a few acts to go before the big top can come down.

And a circus is exactly what the trial phase of this story will produce.

DeChristopher quite naturally became an Earth martyr, as gang green rallied to his side. He's gotten hero treatment by the green-leaning media. He retained the legal services of Pat Shea, a Utah lawyer and Democrat Party nabob who briefly ran the Bureau of Land Management in the Clinton years (a job for which he had no apparent qualifications). Celebrity-scientist James Hansen, the NASA employee who leads the Alarmist School in the climate science debate, even showed up for a pro-DeChristopher pep rally in April, turning this criminal case into a cause celebre.

Here's some backstory from The Salt Lake Tribune:

"Bogus bidder: I did it for good of the planet

Monkey-wrencher asks federal court to allow his climate-change defense. By Christopher Smart

In the court of public opinion, Tim DeChristopher always has argued that he monkey-wrenched an oil and gas lease auction to combat the global climate crisis. Now he wants to make that argument in federal court. Attorneys for the University of Utah economics major have filed papers in U.S. District Court contending a federal judge should reject a government motion and allow their client to use his battle against global warming as a defense against two felony charges . . .

. . . Defense lawyer Pat Shea, who oversaw the Bureau of Land Management during the Clinton administration, said Tuesday the Constitution guarantees his client a "full and complete defense, rather than a trimmed defense when the trimming is done by the government."

DeChristopher pleaded not guilty in April to a two-count federal indictment stemming from a Dec. 19, 2008, BLM oil and gas lease auction in which he offered a total of $1.8 million -- admittedly with no intention of paying the money -- to win bids on 14 parcels near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

In May, U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman filed a 27-page motion in federal court, arguing that a civil-disobedience defense --- such as fighting the climate crisis -- would inflame a jury and serve only to urge those empaneled not to follow the law.

"Accordingly, at trial," the prosecutor's motion states, "defense counsel should focus the jury's attention on facts and not try to confuse it with appeals based on emotion, sympathy or other similar conclusions."

Some legal experts have said the government is trying to wipe out the civil-disobedience defense because it fears some jurors would side with DeChristopher -- despite his acknowledgement that he placed bogus bids on the parcels. At the same time, without that defense, experts have said the U. student may not stand a chance against the charges.

Shea said federal prosecutors have the burden to prove DeChristopher's guilt. "They want a straight rendition of the facts that transpired on Dec. 19, 2008," Shea said. "We want a contextual examination of those events within the parameters of global warming."

If Shea's "contextual examination" squeaks into federal court, this may become more than a sideshow. It could become the Scopes Monkey Trial of climate change -- a Scopes Climate Trial, if you will -- in which the validity of global warming theory becomes the center of debate, not the guilt or innocence of a monkey-wrencher. A jury of laypersons will be called on to settle the matter, not scientists.

Where this could lead, and what precedent a "not guilty" verdict would set, is anyone's guess. But it could be ominous.

We can imagine who the defendant's lawyers might call to the stand, in making the case that almost anything is justified, including criminal acts, in the name of "saving the planet." Hansen, of course. He can resist anything but the spotlight. Activist-Actor Robert Redford, one of the inspirations behind the anti-drilling protests in Utah, might be called. Maybe even a certain former Vice President would testify. How might that sway a jury? Talk about a circus!

But how tenacious would federal prosecutors be in making the case for the Cautiously Skeptical School of climate science, given that they work for an administration that's clearly sided with alarmists in the climate debate? Would prosecutors be tempted to pull punches, or rely on less-than-credible, C Team witnesses?

Shea probably already imagines himself in the role of Clarence Darrow (although given the attention this trial will attract, he may quickly be pushed aside by more established celebrity-lawyers -- Alan Dershowitz leaps to mind -- reaching for Darrow-like immortality). But who will do the lawyering, and play William Jennings Bryan, for the feds? Will they bring the A Team (such as it is)? Or will this fall to some second-string Justice Department stiff, with a cobweb in his ear, tossed into the maelstrom as a sacrificial offering to Gaia?

The imagination runs wild.

There's recently been talk in Washington -- link -- about the need for putting climate science on "trial." The idea is being pushed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in response to EPA plans to regulate so-called "greenhouse gases."

From The Los Angeles Times:

Chamber Threatens Lawsuit if EPA Rejects Climate Science 'Trial'

The nation's largest business group is asking U.S. EPA to hold a public debate on climate change science -- or face litigation -- as the agency prepares to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

In April, EPA said it planned to declare that emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride from new automobiles and their engines contribute to air pollution that endangers public health and welfare. The proposal, which does not include any regulations, comes in response to the Supreme Court's 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA ruling.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a 21-page petition with EPA today, asking the agency to approve an on-the-record proceeding with an independent trier of fact who would allow EPA and environmental and business groups to engage in a "credible weighing" of the scientific evidence that global warming endangers human health. EPA has hosted two public hearings and received more than 300,000 public comments on the matter already.

"They don't have the science to support the endangerment finding," Bill Kovacs, the chamber's vice president for environment, regulatory and government affairs, said in an interview. "We can't just take their word for it."

Kovacs envisions the EPA proceeding as a modern-day "Scopes Monkey Trial," where the science of global warming -- rather than evolution versus creationism -- would be debated. The 1925 trial, which pitted prominent defense attorney Clarence Darrow against three-time presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan, centered on the prosecution of John Scopes for violating a Tennessee law by teaching evolution in a high school classroom.

But be careful what you wish for.

The Chamber's "trial" would take place in a controlled environment, before "an independent trier of fact." It would have the flavor of an academic exercise. And there might be some value in it. What's shaping up in Utah would be far different. There you could have a circus-atmosphere jury trail, in which grandstanding lawyers, celebrity witnesses, hyper-technical evidence and a likable, well-meaning defendant could produce an irrational verdict from a jury of scientific illiterates (if they're representative of typical Americans).

And what if, at the end of the day, the "climate-made-me-do-it defense" works for DeChristopher? Although it's doubtful such a verdict would permanently settle the science -- Darwinism still is being debated more than 80 years after the Scopes trial -- it would certainly embolden a whole new generation of monkey-wrenchers, who will feel licensed to break the law as long as it's for a good of the planet. Where might that lead us? Where does the rule of law stand then?

The implications are ominous.

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