House Science Committee Hearing an Attempt to Justify Unconstitutional Investigation

Published Sep 13, 2016

WASHINGTON (September 13, 2016)—Tomorrow, the House Science Committee will hold a hearing to “explore the validity” of committee chairman Lamar Smith’s investigation into whether two state attorneys general and a number of nonprofit organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), colluded to suppress ExxonMobil’s right to free speech. According to UCS and a number of leading constitutional scholars, the investigation is an abuse of power.

Smith has issued a number of subpoenas demanding that the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general and eight nonprofits turn over all of their communications with each other about whether ExxonMobil misled the public and shareholders about climate change. The attorneys general are investigating the possibility that the corporation committed fraud or violated other laws. The nonprofits, which have tracked ExxonMobil’s activities over the years, provided the attorneys general with this information.

UCS has declined to comply with the subpoena, saying that the inquiry is unconstitutional and outside Smith’s jurisdiction.

“From the outset, Chairman Smith has overstepped his authority with this investigation,” said Ken Kimmell, president of UCS.  “He has consistently mischaracterized our work in repeated, convoluted attempts to justify his probe.  It’s telling that after issuing broad, unilateral subpoenas, he’s now holding a hearing on whether his inquiry is legal. Talk about backwards. However, even if Chairman Smith stacks this hearing with witnesses who will say what he wants to hear, it's clear he's on shaky legal ground.”

Smith issued the subpoenas without the consent of members of the committee’s minority—a new and unprecedented power granted to him at the beginning of the congressional session. And Smith has made UCS and other non-profit groups a target of a federal investigation based on nothing more than the fact that UCS shared information with state law enforcement officials.

In a letter to Smith and other members of the committee, 14 constitutional scholars and civil liberties organizations, including the Floyd Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression at Yale Law School called the subpoenas to UCS and other nonprofit organizations “invalid and constitutionally impermissible.”

“These subpoenas violate the separation of powers, exceed the committee’s delegated authority, abridge the First Amendment, and undermine fundamental principles of federalism,” states the letter. “The subpoenas should not have been issued and should not be enforced.”

The scientific community has spoken out as well. More than 2,000 scientists have joined a letter to Smith and the committee saying that the investigation represents a “misuse of power” that could hurt the ability of scientists to act in the public interest.  

Kimmell said that UCS would not let the investigation have a chilling effect on the organization’s mission.

“The work we do examining the causes and risks of climate change—including providing information to state officials—is clearly protected by the First Amendment,” said Kimmell. “We won’t be intimidated by this abuse of power and will continue to defend our rights to do the work we do. While our offer to brief the committee still stands, we will not comply with an unconstitutional subpoena, nor will we stop working to expose corporations that confuse the public about climate change and block policies that address it.”