Federal Appeals Judge Removed from Case After Dispute Over Climate Change Seminar

August 20, 2019 by Tom Ramstack
The E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington, D.C. It currently houses the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. (Photo by Dan McCue)

A Washington, D.C. federal appeals court judge was removed from an upcoming high-profile environmental case last week after a dispute with a second judge over what was supposed to be a harmless invitation.

It started with a simple advisory email from one judge telling others about an upcoming climate change seminar.

“Colleagues, just FYI. No need to respond to me!” said the email from U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan.

The seminar was sponsored by the Environmental Law Institute and supported by the Federal Judicial Center, a research arm of the federal judiciary.

The email correspondence was shared among 45 judges and their staff, according to a report that started with The Washington Post.

Senior appeals court Judge A. Raymond Randolph responded with a tough-worded email that took aim at Sullivan’s professionalism and threatened to report him to the court’s ethics officers.

It led Sullivan to ask the judiciary’s conduct committee for an opinion on whether Randolph violated ethics rules with his reply.

Sullivan also asked whether Randolph should be compelled to recuse himself from some environmental cases.

Randolph was supposed to preside over oral arguments Sept. 6 in a challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rollback of Obama-era vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards. Last week, he was taken off the case without explanation.

In his email exchange with Sullivan, Randolph also criticized the Environmental Law Institute.

The seminar was supposed to inform judges about how climate change issues increasingly are finding their way into court cases. Randolph appeared to be debunking global warming theories when he wrote, “The [supposed] science and stuff you are now sponsoring is nothing of the sort. Get out of this business and back into the business of judging, which are what you are being paid to do.”

Randolph criticized Sullivan for “many of your latest public displays” and said his email invitation “crossed a line.”

“Should I report you? I don’t know,” Randolph wrote.

He accused Sullivan of “subjecting our colleagues to this nonsense.”

Sullivan replied by expressing regret that Randolph was offended. He explained that he was merely passing along the invitation but had no personal stake in the issue. He added that he would omit Randolph from similar messages in the future.

In his inquiry to the conduct committee, Sullivan asked whether Randolph should be recused from handling appeals of the district judge’s orders.

Other judges who saw the email exchange largely defended Sullivan.

The appeal Randolph was scheduled to hear in September was filed by California and joined by 16 other states last year. It sought to block a Trump administration proposal to freeze strict tailpipe emission standards required of automakers.

The Obama administration standards would require progressively fewer greenhouse gas emissions through 2025. The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency proposes freezing the standards at 2020 levels.

Automakers had complained to Trump that the tougher standards would raise automobile prices for consumers.

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