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This is Where Slimy Lawyer Jokes Come From: Politicians Slap Law Students Who Try to Take on Corporate Crooks

April 8, 2010


Law students across the country are learning a very tough lesson in justice these days: If you go up against powerful institutions in the courtroom, you’d better be prepared to do it without public funds.

This Sunday’s New York Times profiled several law school clinics across the country that are involved in suits against powerful factory farms, lax government regulators, the oil and gas industry and local developers. Each of the schools is being threatened by local Republican politicians with the loss of public funding directly because of the lawsuits in which they are involved.

In one example, Maryland lawmakers nearly stripped $500,000 of the University of Maryland’s law school funding after it became involved in a lawsuit against chicken producer Perdue and a farm that contracts with the corporation. The suit was brought by environmental groups Assateague Coastkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance after the farming operations were found polluting local waterways with agricultural waste at limits exceeding state law.

Perdue appealed to lawmakers by insinuating that this was an attack on family farms. But the reality is that processors like Perdue contract with what they call “family farms” and turn them into concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) or mini factory farms. They tell these farmers what kind of feed to give to the animals, what kind of drugs to give them, etc.

It’s a tight operation, to be sure. Perdue offers relatively low-cost poultry in a huge international market. And if these “family factory farms” want to make money off of these contracts, perhaps they feel the need to cut corners. One need look no further than Carole Morison, a chicken farmer profiled in Food Inc., for a story of a family farmer who had to give up her contract with Perdue in order to maintain a humane environment at her chicken farm.

By contrast, the family running the 80,000 chicken CAFO that is getting sued along with Perdue is upset that they have to hire their own legal representation while the environmental groups get pro bono representation in part from the law school. But the family is running a business, not a nonprofit as are the groups suing them. Furthermore, if Perdue were really so concerned about the demise of the “family farm,” they could provide them with legal representation.

In the end, the Maryland legislature decided against censuring the law school by withdrawing funds, instead merely requiring that schools submit a report on policies of who can be sued by academic law clinics. Some may see this as a victory for the school, but the damage has already been done in the form of silencing academic freedom.

One lawmaker told the Baltimore Sun, “I was satisfied that the message had been heard,” in justifying the continued funding. It seems that message is best summarized as “Don’t mess with Perdue.”

And it’s not just in Maryland where law schools are feeling political pressure. As the Times piece notes (emphasis mine):

“We’re seeing a very strong pushback from deep-pocket interests, and that pushback is creating a chilling effect on many clinics,” said Robert R. Kuehn, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, citing a recent survey he conducted that found that more than a third of faculty members at legal clinics expressed fears about university or state reaction to their casework and that a sixth said they had turned down unpopular clients because of these concerns.

In the Maryland case, Perdue said that if state regulators were doing their jobs, the lawsuit wouldn’t have been necessary. But if similar cases are any indication, I’d guess Perdue isn’t exactly begging regulators to knock down the doors of its contractors.

Indeed, in another case mentioned in the New York Times article, students sued a state regulator and the industry being regulated came to the rescue of the regulators via Republican lawmakers (emphasis mine):

In Louisiana, the Legislature is considering a bill forbidding law students at clinics that receive any public money from suing government agencies, companies or individuals for damages unless exempted by the Legislature. It is a response to a suit brought by the Tulane Law School clinic on behalf of an environmental group against federal and state environmental regulators, seeking greater enforcement of air quality standards in the Baton Rouge area.

“There is no reason that tax money should pay for these law students to act like regulators,” said State Senator Robert Adley, a Republican who submitted the bill in response to a request from his state’s oil and gas industry.

Basically, what appears to be happening here is that regulators fail to do their jobs, which makes industry happy. Then, environmental groups sue the regulators. Industry calls in favors with lawmakers, who threaten to take public funding away from the school that partners with the environmental groups.

It makes sense to take this tack. As we’ve seen in civil suits against major corporations, a company can drag out lawsuits for years, decades even, waiting out or bankrupting plaintiffs. But with a major institution such as a law school to contend with, Corporate America is worried.

Yet, state politicians should also be wary in such a situation. Forbidding law clinics from “suing government agencies, companies or individuals for damages” unless the local government says it’s OK makes the practical experience a law student receives from such activity toothless and stunted. Certainly it’s not the type of thing that draws potential talent to a state. Would it be worth saving an industry leader such as Perdue if it meant losing, say, Purdue?

It’s bad enough that lawmakers can tailor government contracts and legislation specifically for corporations. Now they’re silencing their own states’ budding defenders of justice, teaching them that it doesn’t pay to stick your neck out for the little guy — or for the public good.

Might as well give up and become a lobbyist, kids.


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