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Intelligent Design Suit - Pretrial Motion Warfare, Part 2


Testimony ended last week in David Coppedge’s lawsuit against the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).  As reported in previous entries on this blog, Coppedge was employed as a System’s Administrator at JPL.  His suit claims that he was the victim of discrimination and adverse employment actions as the result of his alleged on the job discussions of Intelligent Design.


CalTech and JPL contend that they did not discriminate against Coppedge and that he “lost his formal designation as team leader because of on-going conflicts with Cassini customers and that he was one of two System Administrators laid off as part of a neutral evaluation process due to Cassini budget restrictions”.


This is no ordinary employment lawsuit.  Such suits are typically short and simple.  Often, low to mid-level employees cannot afford the significant legal fees generated by a law firm working on an hourly basis. And contingency fee attorneys frequently do not take such cases due to their belief that significant monetary damages are not likely.


But in Coppedge’s case, both sides were able to mount world-class litigation strategy and tactics.  Obviously, JPL and CalTech have the financial ability to fund the best available defense. And, if CalTech’s pretrial pleadings are accurate, Coppedge’s suit is being funded by organizations which, its alleges, are seeking to use the suit for the sole purpose of “promoting and publicizing Intelligent Design”.  These include the Discovery Institute and Alliance Defense Fund.


Coppedge, in fact, filed a pretrial motion to exclude any evidence of involvement of these two organizations. CalTech argued, in response, that evidence of their involvement should be allowed because the jury was “entitled to understand the role of the Discovery Institute and the Alliance Defense Fund in supporting this lawsuit and their larger interests in promoting intelligent design”. CalTech stated that there “is nothing that Coppedge and representatives of these two organizations want more than to devote even more trial time to the intelligent design movement and its views in general, rather than to the actual legal claims actually at issue”.


The extent of the media’s coverage of the trial also became a pretrial issue.   The court granted a media request for audio and visual access to the trial, but barred coverage during testimony of “highly personal topics”, such as witnesses’ views of California Proposition 8 (a ballot measure on same-sex marriage).  CalTech asked the court to expand the bar to include testimony on religious beliefs, religious practices and general views of same-sex marriage.  The pleadings I read did not suggest why on earth the latter topic  would have been a potential subject of testimony.


Coppedge strenuously objected to the motion, arguing that CalTech was seeking “selective privacy”. He characterized JPL’s representations to the court as an argument that “the mere mentioning of a witness religious views is sufficient to constitute an invasion of their privacy rights”. He argued, “one’s religious identification and practices are not generally concealed to the public” and are “not presumptively private”. He noted, “churches are filled with churchgoers who attend openly and without any thoughts to their privacy rights being implicated”.


Coppedge also sought to preclude CalTech from introducing evidence that the JPL (a private employer) had the right to interfere with his political activities.  Such evidence, Coppedge argued, would be improper since the California Labor Code constrained private employers from controlling or directing an employee’s political activities. As part of this, Coppedge filed a transcript of a conversation he had with his supervisors at JPL, during which he was told “we have no issue with people discussing religion and politics in the office so long as it’s not unwelcome or disruptive”.


Pretrial motions give great insight into the issues litigants are truly concerned about. Filing a pretrial motion to exclude evidence telegraphs a party’s belief that the evidence, if heard/seen by the jury, will be damaging to it.


Deliberations in the case are expected to last at least a week.  Stay tuned.


WRITTEN BY

THE LAW OFFICE OF PHIL GRIFFIS



Phil Griffis obtained his first jury verdict in 1990, when he convinced a jury that a customer’s fall at his client’s store did not cause the customer’s aspiration pneumonia and stroke. In the years since he has continued to win in courtrooms across the State of Texas.

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