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Don't expect this week's trial to resolve the Ward Churchill case

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Of the scads of sentences written about former University of Colorado-Boulder prof Ward Churchill over the past several years, the one that best sums up the story was penned by Mike Littwin in a May 2006 column back when he was still scribbling for the Rocky Mountain News. As Littwin put it, "Even a witch hunt can occasionally turn up a witch."

Churchill's wrongful termination lawsuit against CU, which goes to trial today, pivots on some fascinating legal questions. The university has assembled a compelling amount of evidence against Churchill to support its accusations of academic fraud. But it's highly unlikely (make that wholly unlikely) that CU would have bothered with an investigation were it not for the belated firestorm over Churchill's post-9/11 essay, in which he compared those who died in the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center to "little Eichmanns" -- a turn of phrase that gave Nazi Adolf Eichmann more attention than he'd received in ages. So... does the impetus for the initial inquiry mean that Churchill's firing was politically motivated? Or is that original rationale unimportant considering the information about Churchill's scholarship that was subsequently discovered?

Jury members will get a chance to decide shortly -- but theirs probably won't be the last word. There'll almost certainly be myriad grounds for appeal no matter what conclusion they reach, and because both sides are highly motivated to win, expect an appeal -- perhaps several. All those Churchill critics who complained about the tax dollars he received over the years may now get the chance to see many more of them spent to justify his sacking.

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