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Reducing carbon emissions is one of the great challenges of our time. This is the end claimed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for his high-profile investigation of Exxon Mobil Corp., but his end does not justify his means.

Prompted by evidence that the company’s public climate-change ­statements were at odds with what some of its own scientists were saying internally, Schneiderman has utilized New York’s Martin Act to subpoena a broad range of Exxon’s internal documents. The Martin Act grants the attorney general extraordinary powers to subpoena private documents without either obtaining a court order, which is required in most ordinary New York criminal proceedings, or the filing of a complaint, which is required in an ordinary civil action and is subject to court review. The Exxon subpoena is an abuse of these extraordinary powers.

Exxon and its sympathizers have been complaining loudly that the subpoena abridges the company’s free speech rights, a claim spurring considerable controversy. The bigger, more unambiguous problem for Schneiderman’s investigation, however, is its misuse of tools designed for another purpose. The Martin Act regulates speech made in connection with transactions in securities. Its subpoena powers are to assist investigations of possible violations. It is very unlikely, no matter what the subpoena turns up, that the attorney general will be able to plausibly argue that Exxon in fact committed such a violation.

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