Environment / Environmental Law, Law Schools

Maryland State and Perdue v. Maryland Law and Reason: An Uneasy Compromise

Over the past few weeks we’ve lightly touched on the fight between Maryland State Legislators and Maryland Law School. To bring you up to speed: the Perdue Chicken corporation was annoyed by a lawsuit filed with the aid of Maryland’s Environmental Law Clinic. So, like all good corporations, the bigwigs at Perdue reached into their back pocket and unleashed the Maryland State Senate upon the University. The spineless state politicians ostensibly did what they were told and threatened to withhold hundreds of thousands of dollars from the University unless various conditions were met, including disclosure of privileged information.

I guess it’s nice to know that the American oligarchy is still going strong.

But thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. After weeks of intense public pressure, it appears that the Maryland legislators backed down…

Earlier this week, the Maryland House and State Senate got together to remove language that would have stripped the law school of funding. The news was posted on the Maryland School of Law website:

On Tuesday, April 6, conferees from the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate agreed to strike amendments from the State’s Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Bill that would have withheld $500,000 from the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the University System of Maryland until the School of Law reports on its Clinical Law Program. The conferees are meeting to reconcile differences between the House- and Senate-passed budgets.

In place of the amendments, the Assembly adopted narrative language that requires the Law School to report on its Environmental Law Clinic’s cases from the past two years, but does not withhold funding. Previous amendments under consideration by the General Assembly would have withheld up to $750,000 until the Law School reported on individual cases, clients and expenditures for matters actively in litigation by its Environmental Law Clinic.

Here’s the “narrative language” the legislature imposed:

“The University of Maryland Baltimore School of Law shall submit a report on the Environmental Law Clinic listing and describing each legal case in the past two years in which they participated in a court action including a complete delineation of the non privileged expenditures for each case. The report shall be submitted to the budget committees by August 1st 2010.”

Right, because state legislators are really going to read descriptions of every case a law school clinic has taken over the past two years.

Really, this is the worst kind of politics: State officials who have no idea what they are talking about, serving as mouthpieces for private interests. Even with this compromise, Maryland Law Dean Phoebe Haddon isn’t particularly happy about it:

“The Law School appreciates the willingness of the Assembly to replace restrictions on university appropriations with a ‘narrative’ that requests non-privileged information about some of our cases, but without withholding funding. We are very thankful for the support we have received for our Clinical Law Program, both from leaders of the legal profession in Maryland and national leaders in legal education,” said Dean Phoebe Haddon. “Although I remain convinced that the obligation to report on cases in active litigation interferes with the judicial process, I recognize the hard work that has led to this point.”

Over at Concurring Opinions, Deven Desai notes that the corporate pressure on Maryland Law School is likely to happen more and more as funding for legal clinics dries up:

[P]rivate and public schools in general must continually navigate the tension between pursuing the school’s varied goals and funders’ interests in squashing pursuits that may conflict with funders’ business goals. Any major industry is of course sensitive to any questions about its practices. Public and private schools by now have learned that must try to navigate the receipt of donor funds so that they don’t impede the schools’ research interests. Yet, as I understand it, the smaller the school and/or its endowment, the more difficult it is to avoid strings and pressure from the funder. With all schools struggling to find funding whether because of over-reliance on endowment income or shrinking state money, the ability of funders to exert influence over schools is likely to increase. If so, questions about public interest funding, the role of educational institutions in questioning society’s practices, and the value of having skeptics are more important than ever.

Of course, it’s one thing for private businesses to selectively donate only to organizations that don’t have the impudence to ask questions. But could they leave elected officials out of their corporate circle of yes men? I know we live in this crazy world where a corporation is a person with the right to speak through cash bribes. But it’s just unsightly when local politicians so obviously heed their special interest masters at the expense of public legal education.

General Assembly Will Not Withhold Funds Over Clinic Lawsuit [University of Maryland School of Law]
Partial victory for law clinic in fight with legislature [National Law Journal]
Public/Private Divides, Law Clinics, and the Role of Educational Institutions [Concurring Opinions]

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