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Our Top 10 Evolution-Related Stories: #9, David Coppedge Takes the Stand

David Klinghoffer


Editor’s note: We said from the very beginning of our coverage of the David Coppedge case that whatever the ultimate outcome, by revealing the nest of uninformed bias at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, Coppedge had scored a victory for freedom of thought on issues related to intelligent design. Below is David Klinghoffer’s April 16 summary of the trial’s conclusion. A tentative and unfavorable ruling was issued in October; see John West’s report.
Jet Propulsion Lab defense attorney Cameron Fox was observed to jump slightly with a nervous energy when she discussed an email memo potentially damaging to her client’s case. Judge Ernest Hiroshige was seen to put on his glasses and lean forward a bit when testimony from JPL manager Cab Burgess, apparently contradicting that email and calling Burgess’s candor into question, was projected on a screen in the court.
These were some of the more, hmm, dramatic highlights on Monday, the final day of the David Coppedge v. JPL trial that unfolded over the course of five weeks in Hiroshige’s Superior Court room in Los Angeles. Coppedge attorney William Becker gave his concluding arguments in the case, as did Ms. Fox for JPL.
No one expects a decision from Judge Hiroshige much before the end of the summer. In the meantime, Coppedge’s lone lawyer and JPL’s shiny legal squad will submit briefs to the court — arguments as to the relevant laws and precedents. The case, as opposed to the trial, is a long way from being over.
What’s transpired so far has been about seeking to determine questions of fact — the motives of Coppedge’s employers in demoting and later terminating him as a computer “team lead” Systems Administrator for NASA’s JPL on the Cassini mission to Saturn. Did they punish him, in the final analysis, for quietly lending out DVDs favorable to intelligent design — as we think we’ve shown pretty conclusively here at ENV? Or, as JPL contends, was it really Coppedge’s subpar job performance, which no one thought to document before the whole matter of ID came up, that did him in?
In a complicated case like this, being tried by a judge who keeps his thoughts and reflections well concealed, observers wondering about the outcome are pretty much reduced to scrutinizing Tarot cards. Hence the interest in Ms. Fox’s anxious footwork, a departure for an otherwise impressively calm, methodical and seasoned trial attorney. And the possible significance of Judge Hiroshige donning corrective eyewear and adopting an attentive posture at an arguably important moment.
The email in question, in case you’re curious, was from JPL’s star-chamber like Human Resources department, specifically Nancy Aguilera in HR’s Employee Services and Solutions Center. The “solution” she laid out, dated April 7, 2009, looks very much like a strategy for getting rid of Coppedge, hardly a month after the matter of intelligent design came up in a March 2 meeting that supervisor Greg Chin had with Coppedge.
Describing that meeting in an email the next day, Chin wrote to colleagues, “I informed [Coppedge] that Intelligent Design (ID) is a personal belief that should be kept to himself unless invited by other to discuss.”
That he was being demoted and disciplined was sprung upon Coppedge with no warning at an April 13 meeting. Another key decision maker, supervisor Cab Burgess, would later testify that it was at that meeting, observing the mild-mannered Coppedge’s supposedly truculent behavior, that he was spontaneously struck with the idea of removing Coppedge from the prestigious role of “team lead” — despite the fact that this was part of HR’s “solution” already by April 7.
It is curious. However, JPL has been nothing if not careful in seeking to shield from view the motivations of its upper management in their handling of Coppedge.
How it will all play out in the end is, of course, guesswork. The main points, from the perspective of common sense as opposed to the arcana of employment law in the State of California, are as we have hammered away at them here. Coppedge was an employee with a fine documented record of high-quality job performance. He got along with colleagues and shared political, scientific and religious views only in a modest, unobtrusive way, as anyone ought to have the right to do.
His trouble began when it became known that, among his views, there numbered a belief in the scientific theory of intelligent design. The culture of JPL could not tolerate open trafficking in this idea, however discreetly done. And this — by an implicit policy of intimidation and silence — is how Big Science at places like JPL maintains the pretense of a “consensus” against ID.