Judge to limit secret documents in auto emissions trial

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(Host) A federal judge says he wants to make sure the public has full access to a landmark trial that pits the auto industry against Vermont environmental regulators.

So U.S. District Judge William Sessions says he’ll meet with lawyers to try to narrow the range of documents the industry wants to keep secret.

VPR’s John Dillon has been covering the case, and has this report:

(Dillon) This case is ultimately about whether federal law pre-empts Vermont’s law to control greenhouse gases from cars.

Vermont and several other Northeast states have followed the lead of California to regulate automobile carbon dioxide emissions. The industry has challenged those regulations in court.

But first, Judge William Sessions has had to rule on fundamental issues of First Amendment press freedoms, and the right of the public to attend the trial in open court.

The industry wants the ability to close parts of the trial and to declare certain evidence as trade secrets necessary to protect competition.

The Burlington Free Press objected. And Sessions, indicated he’s reluctant to kick the public or the press out of the courtroom.

He described as “troubling” the industry’s attempt to close portions of the trial.

On Monday, the judge told the lawyers he wants both sides to narrow the material that’s potentially secret. Sessions said he’ll meet in private with both sides to go over the categories of evidence, witness testimony and cross-examination questions.

The industry says it’s already trimmed the list of secret documents from 121 to about 74. Charles Territo represents the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

(Territo) The first thing we’ll do is to sit down with the judge and the defendants in this case and go through the documents and decide which documents will be sealed and which documents will be open to the public. And really that’s exactly what we’ve wanted to do this whole time. Most of the trial we believe – between 85 and 90% of the testimony – will be open to the public.

(Dillon) The industry argues that the only way to cut CO2 emissions is by improving fuel economy. And it says fuel economy standards can only be set by the federal government, not the states.

Robert Hemley, a Vermont lawyer for the auto industry, warned that meeting the clean air standards would be too expensive.

He said the auto executives were prepared to testify in open court that the industry stands to lose – in his words – “billions and billions of dollars.”

David Bookbinder is a lawyer for the Sierra Club who is assisting the state.

He says most car companies in the world can comply with the new regulations.

He responds to Hemley by saying that Detroit is capable of doing it.

The full trial is scheduled to start on April 9th.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.

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