Lamar Smith Holds Hearing to Justify Climate Change Investigation Subpoenas

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Representative Lamar Smith held yet another hearing on Wednesday, and this time he was intent on using his gavel time to try to prove that the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology not only has the right to subpoena the state attorneys general investigating ExxonMobil's history of covering up its own climate change research, but that it's actually an obligation mandated by the Constitution itself. 

"The committee wants the truth, Americans deserve the truth and the Constitution requires that we seek the truth," Smith stated. 

Considering the amount of criticism the San Antonio Republican chairman has gotten for issuing these subpoenas demanding all communications between the offices of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Massachusetts AG Gen. Maura Healey and various environmental organizations, it isn't exactly surprising that Smith spent the hearing trying to justify himself.

Since the subpoenas were issued in July, Schneiderman and Healey have both refused to obey the subpoenas and have gotten plenty of support from the legal community that says Smith and company didn't have the right to issue them. Last week a group of nine legal scholars sent Smith an open letter informing him that his efforts to issue subpoenas demanding all communications between the state AGs and environmental organizations are a violation of the separation of powers that exceeds the committee's authority and infringes on the First Amendment. 

So of course Smith used the hearing to try to prove that he was both completely within his rights and that he wasn't going after Schneiderman and Healey in a thinly veiled effort to defend Exxon against accusations the company covered up proof of climate change for decades. Nope, in fact, according to the Smith view of the situation, he and the rest of the Republicans on the committee have just been using their oversight powers to defend alternative views — a.k.a. the view that doesn't believe climate change is happening at all — of climate change science.

During the hearing, Smith went so far as to insist that it was being held to protect constitutional rights and science itself. "The documents demanded will allow the committee to assess the breadth and depth of the AGs' investigations and inform our understanding of whether their actions have a chilling impact on scientific research and development," Smith stated as the hearing got started. 

Smith went on to insist, in a creative interpretation of what his whole war against climate change science has been about, that he was actually doing this to protect constitutional rights (of Exxon) and to ensure that research will keep happening without any interference from those who wish to influence the outcomes of scientific studies. (Remarkably, Smith managed to keep a straight face while he made this argument.) 

Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson, of Dallas, didn't let Smith's claims pass without comment. "The Majority has claimed that their investigation is about protecting the First Amendment rights of ExxonMobil," Johnson said. "However, the law is clear. Fraud is not protected by the First Amendment. If any companies in the oil industry defrauded the public or their shareholders in their well-documented disinformation campaign on global warming, then that is a matter for the state AGs and the courts, not the Committee on Science."

But the witnesses called to appear before the committee backed Smith up on his contentions. Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, told the committee that he personally believes in climate change, but that his views on that topic don't change the fact that the committee has the right to subpoena the state AGs, who don't have any legal buffer to protect them on this front. Turley told the committee he could see this effort by the state AGs affecting scientific research — which makes sense since nobody really wants to be doing research that gets him investigated. 

Ronald Rotunda, a law professor at Chapman University with more conservative leanings and ties, also told the committee the state AGs should pony up and obey the subpoenas. "The American people have a right to know if Mr. Schneiderman is working on his own, or is he part of a corrupt deal with some of these climate groups," Rotunda said. "People that don't comply with subpoenas have something to hide. That's why they don't comply."

Smith seemed to mull all of this over during the meeting. He mentioned taking Schneiderman and Healey to court if they don't comply with the subpoenas. 

The hearing went on for almost three hours and by the time it was done, nothing had really changed or been decided. (In other words, it was a typical hearing.) Plus, Smith had the satisfaction of hearing people tell him he's in the legal, moral and all-around right in issuing subpoenas.

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