SKINNING CATS IN DIFFERENT WAYS

For those who think that important lawsuits are won only in courtrooms, look at what’s happening in Maryland.

In March, the University of Maryland’s law clinic filed suit on behalf of an evironmental group against Perdue Farms — one of the state’s largest employers — and an 80,000 poultry farm. The complaint alleges illegal discharge of pollution into rivers feeding the Chesapeake Bay. So far, it sounds like just another case, right?

Wrong. Two weeks later, the Maryland Senate passed a budget amendment that would have required the university’s law clinic to disclose its clients, expenditures, and other information about its cases for the past two years — including pending matters. If it refused, the university would lose $500,000 in state funding.

Any lawyer in private practice will confirm the chilling effect that such inroads into sacred confidentiality obligations would have on them and their clients. One can imagine the uproar that would follow if someone asked a corporate client to disclose how it was spending its money to prosecute a claim or defend itself.

After considering even stricter measures and bigger monetary penalties, the Maryland House of Delegates approved the Senate bill’s disclosure requirement, but removed the funding cut.

According to the NYTimes, a Perdue spokesman said that the company had done no lobbying in support of the legislation, but its chairman, Jim Perdue, went to Annapolis in early March to tell lawmakers that cases like the clinic’s posed “one of the largest threats to the family farm in the last 50 years.” (http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2010/04/08/08greenwire-law-students-role-in-farm-pollution-suit-anger-96381.html). 

Apparently, legal aid clinics face similar challenges to their independence in Louisiana, Michigan, and elsewhere.

Those supporting the requirements argued that state tax dollars shouldn’t be used to undermine important economic interests, one of which is a big employer.

If the issue is a state’s financial interests, I suppose similar objections could apply to legal aid clinics that defend the accused.  After all, the state is paying to convict them, right?

Maybe we should go beyond law school clinics and eliminate state-subsidized public defender programs. too.

Or maybe the real problem is the ability of private players to control an entire state’s legislative process.

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