Coppedge v. JPL & Caltech: Pre-Trial Perspective

The trial is scheduled to start on 07 March, and there’s a final pre-trial conference set for 24 February — four days from now. This is a good time to look at the big picture and speculate about how things are going.

As you know, David Coppedge is the creationist who claims he was wrongfully demoted (and later fired) by his employer because he was promoting Intelligent Design (ID) on the job. He used to work as a computer technician for Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is part of Caltech. He also maintains a creationist website: Creation-Evolution Headlines — which was recently moved here.

It’s been a long time since we gave you a lot of background information, so we’ll repeat some of that here. Most of you can skip the next few indented paragraphs:

This is a big case for the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids). They’re trying to establish some new kind constitutional right — an employee’s freedom to promote creationism in the workplace. One of their top legal talents, Discoveroid Casey Luskin, is advising the lawyer for Coppedge — that’s William J. Becker, Jr., who (until he picked up a few creationist clients) appears to be mostly a personal injury and workers’ comp lawyer.

To promote the issue, the Discoveroids initially waged a public relations campaign which we described here: The Coppedge Case: A Study in Tactics and Strategy. They’ve set up a page devoted to this case, which is here, but which seems to have languished for months.

The official information source for the Coppedge case requires payment of fees to obtain copies of pleadings from the court clerks here: Superior Court of California, Los Angeles. At the box for “Case Number” you need to enter BC435600. Some minimal information is available for free — the names of the parties and their lawyers, a list of what documents have been filed, what proceedings have been held, and what future hearings have been scheduled.

In recent weeks there’s been a great deal of activity concerning several motions in limine the parties filed in order to determine what evidence the judge will allow in or exclude from the trial. The judge’s rulings will be vital in determining whether this will be: (a) a routine trial about alleged wrongful termination of an allegedly misbehaving employee who was warned, then demoted, and finally let go in a downsizing; or (b) a month-long extravaganza in which the jury will be shown DVDs about the glories of creationism and the horrors of how its proponents have been ruthlessly Expelled! by the godless scientists.

Because these motions are so important to the nature of the trial, we’ll give you what we think is a complete listing of them, with a brief summary of what they’re all about. These pleadings were obtained from the court clerk’s office by our friends at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), and then posted at their archive of pleadings in the case: NCSE’s Coppedge archive. They’re scans of pdf files.

Starting in early December, JPL-Caltech filed Defendant’s motion to exclude any mention that Coppedge’s conduct was justified because of NASA’s or JPL’s research into the origin of life. We like this one, because Coppedge’s cheerleaders have been constantly saying that Coppedge was just trying to be helpful to JPL by offering his creationist material, and his being an advocate of creationism (or intelligent design) was work-related. This argument ignores, however, the fact that Coppedge was a System Administrator (“SA”) whose job was to service computers and computer networks for the Cassini mission — not to debate scientific issues such as the origin of life.

Then JPL-Caltech filed Defendant’s motion to exclude testimony, evidence, argument, and comment about the contents of Coppedge’s DVDs. That’s an attempt to keep this from being a show-trial about intelligent design.

The next one is a bit technical. JPL-Caltech filed Defendant’s motion to exclude testimony, evidence, argument, and comment about counsel’s privileged consultation with Caltech. This involves attorney-client privilege. Caltech doesn’t want it mentioned because Coppedge intends to claim that such meetings were just a facade for firing him, and to rebut that, Caltech would have to divulge privileged matters.

They also filed Defendant’s motion to exclude Plaintiff’s subjective opinion of his own job performance, claiming that such testimony would be subjective, self-serving conclusions that are irrelevant to what motivated the decision-makers in this case.

Then they filed Defendant’s motion to exclude testimony, evidence, argument, and comment about Plaintiff’s subjective opinions about ultimate legal issues, such as whether Caltech “discriminated” against Coppedge because of his religion and/or viewpoints, or “retaliated” against him. The argument here is that those questions are for the jury to decide.

A similar issue is presented in Defendant’s motion to exclude testimony, evidence, argument, and comment about viewpoint discrimination.

They also filed Defendant’s Motion in Limine to Exclude or Limit Testimony of David DeWolf. He’s expected to testify that the proponents of intelligent design historically have been subjected to hostility or discrimination, or that Caltech’s treatment of Coppedge is an illustration of the hostility toward advocates of intelligent design.

Then there were motions filed by Coppedge. The first is Plaintiff’s Motion in Limine to Permit use of DVD Content. This is about his intent to show two intelligent design DVDs to the jury — “Unlocking the Mystery of Life” and “The Privileged Planet.”

Over the next several weeks, the parties filed pleadings to oppose each other’s motions, and then more pleadings to defend their own motions. Each was accompanied by legal memoranda and vast amounts of exhibits. The stakes were high and the acrimony was thick. Then a new round of pleadings was filed.

There was Coppedge’s Motion in Limine #2, to Exclude References to Proposition 8. Proposition 8 was a proposal to ban gay marriage in California. Coppedge supported it, and his alleged badgering co-workers about it was one of JPL’s complaints about him. Now, in his motion in limine, he doesn’t want that topic to be mentioned at the trial. Too prejudicial, he claims.

Next was Coppedge’s Motion in Limine #3, to Exclude Evidence and Argument that JPL Had a Right to Interfere with Coppedge’s Political Activities. Coppedge claims he had the right to make political speeches and hand out flyers, and it’s unfair for JPL-Caltech to deny him that right and then mention his activities at the trial.

Then there was Coppedge’s Motion in Limine #4, to Exclude References to Third Party Organizations Interested in this Case. That’s to keep evidence from the jury that Coppedge was motivated to file his lawsuit in order to promote intelligent design.

There’s also a Coppedge’s Motion in Limine #5, to Exclude Testimony from JPL’s Expert Witness Regarding Coppedge’s Mitigation Efforts. That’s technical stuff about the employment market and how much damages Coppedge has suffered from being laid off, but Coppedge doesn’t want the jury to hear it.

After that, JPL-Caltech filed pleadings opposing Coppedge’s new motions, and then Coppedge filed pleadings defending his motions. With the trial date approaching, the stakes were getting higher and the acrimony was thicker.

So there you are. It’s all up to the judge now, and the pre-trial conference will be on 24 February. At that time (if not before) we expect the judge to rule on all of these motions, and then we’ll know whether this will be a routine two-day trial about a discharged employee, whom the employer claims was properly demoted and fired for good reasons, or will it be a month-long mess about an alleged conspiracy by godless materialist scientists to suppress intelligent design.

Meanwhile, we don’t envy the lawyers. With so many issues up in the air, how do they prepare for trial? They’ll either need all of their witnesses, or very few of them. They’ll either need to prepare for a vast amount of cross-examination, or not very much. How many exhibits (probably blown up for display on an easel — or maybe digitized for a slide show) will they need to bring to the courtroom? How many little issues will they need to research for argument?

We don’t know what to expect, because we’re not involved in the thick of things. But with so much undecided, the people who are involved don’t know what to expect either. It’ll be fun for us, but it’s agony for them.

Copyright © 2012. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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11 responses to “Coppedge v. JPL & Caltech: Pre-Trial Perspective

  1. The pre-trial conference should be a hoot.

    There’s an interesting possibility. If the motions are judged unfavorably from Coppedge’s perspective, will he drop the suit altogether? After all, what’s the point, if he can’t turn the trial into a forum proselytizing ID, and instead must deal with the litany of issues that JPL wants to present?

  2. Ceteris Paribus

    @Rubble:

    From the point of view of the DI, and maybe Coppedge too, there is no way to lose. Keep in mind that most of what passes for religion in this country was founded on a pantheon of true believers who were promoted to the rank of martyrs at the ungodly hands of their oppressors. At least that’s what the Sunday school books tell us.

  3. The DI is desperately and transparently trying to swing the focus of this case to the content of Coppedge’s speech rather than the nature of it. JPL has repeatedly stated that content is irrelevant and it was the manner of Coppedge’s behavior that caused disruption in the workplace.

    Sure, the DI wants to bog down the court on a goose chase discussing “intelligent design” creationism but it’s not working for them so far.

    It will be fun to watch. Popcorn anyone?

  4. Ceteris Paribus, I think you’re right. The point behind the suit, should the rulings go unfavorably, is to play the “expelled” card for the public one more time.

  5. If the DI/Coppedge lose the ability to present a defense based on ID viewpoint discrimination, they will certainly seek a settlement, however small. Even a very few dollars will allow them to claim victory and go home to write their press releases.

    However, they must know that they have a weak case, even with the ID material. The worst outcome for the DI would be to go to trial, make their viewpoint discrimination case to a jury, and lose. They would try to spin the result, but it would still be a huge defeat. They must be weighing the risk of potentially losing everything vs. the benefit of a quick settlement which they could trumpet as another victory.

    Who will blink first?

  6. Ed, JPL will not blink. I believe that they are on record as stating that they will not settle.

    Should JPL win this case, the setback to ID will be minimal. Remember, folks: these people don’t stand face to face with reality.

    On a more realistic front, I suspect that part of the ploy is to watch the reality-based side incur larger legal costs. The Discoveroids could easily spin this into a vague threat: let us do and say what we want, or it’ll cost you, one way or the other.

  7. My crystal ball says JPL is in it to the conclusion. It appears they handled Coppedge fairly; there’s no point to giving Coppedge a penny. Money-wise it’s no skin off the DI’s nose either way. They’re not paying for Becker’s time, at least, I don’t think so, since the AFA provided a grant. And free legal advice from Luskin? That would have to be a negative cost!

    IANAL so I don’t know if Coppedge can get stuck with legal costs should he lose. How far is the DI, AFA, Coppedge and Becker willing to fund appeals?

  8. Curm !

    http://cupwire.ca/articles/50088

    best
    J. Meyers, Toronto

  9. Very nice, J. Meyers, but I ain’t fallin’ for it.

  10. Check the NCSE- the witness list and the exhibit list is up- from last Friday.

    Looks like the videos made the list…

  11. Joe G says: “Looks like the videos made the list…”

    Merely filing a list of exhibits doesn’t mean they can all be used. The judge hasn’t ruled on objections yet.