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April 7, 2010

Maryland Legislature Blunts Threat to Law Clinic Funding

Maryland’s House of Delegates this week tempered a proposal from the state Senate to cut funding for the environmental law clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law unless the clinic reported client names and data on expenditures and revenues. 

_ President Carolyn B. Lamm was among national legal profession leaders protesting what she called an intolerable “intrusion on the attorney‑client relationship,” in a statement issued Thursday, April 1.  Lamm cited the risk that the reporting requirement could intimidate potential clients from seeking legal counsel, and the responsibility of lawyers, including lawyer-supervised students in clinical programs, “to fulfill their ethical obligations to provide effective representation, to protect client confidences and to resist interference or pressure that seeks to compromise their professional judgment.”

“Just as lawyers who represent unpopular clients are fulfilling the responsibilities of all lawyers, so too are law students who assist clients in clinical legal programs,” said Lamm, urging lawyers to “remember their professional obligation to uphold the independence of their profession, and speak out against intimidation whenever they see it.”

Deans of law schools across the nation also protested what they described as “political interference on behalf of large poultry interests.”  The deans called it “intimidation of the coarsest kind,” adding “[a]ttacks on access to justice for the poor and academic freedom are never the right answer.” 

As approved by Maryland’s House, the state budget legislation calls on the law school to list and describe each legal case in which the clinic participated in court action in the past two years, including details of non-privileged expenditures for each.  But dropped from the House bill were threats of rescinding amounts ranging from $250,000 to $500,000 unless the clinic filed more detailed reports..  The measure requires the report to be submitted to the budget committees of each house of the General Assembly by Aug. 1.  Members of the state Senate reportedly were willing to accept the change.

The clinic had filed suit March 2 on behalf of an environmental group against Perdue Farms and a chicken farmer, alleging they illegally discharge pollution into waterways feeding into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Maryland controversy was among several instances of tension over law school clinical programs reported in the media. 

The Louisiana legislature is considering a bill to restrict law school clinics at schools receiving state funds suing government agencies, individuals or businesses for money damages, unless exempted by the legislature.  A New Jersey court is expected to hear oral arguments during April in a case brought by students in a Rutgers University law school clinic seeking to halt development of a strip mall, in which the developer is using the open-records law to seek copies of internal documents.  And a Michigan prosecutor subpoenaed students working in the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic to testify in a retrial of a man they had worked to exonerate.  The prosecutor later dropped the charges.

Comments (2)

  • telecommutenow
    9:54 AM April 14, 2010

    In the case that provoked the debate, could someone tell me who was the client? The ‘lawyer client” relationship did not exist. This was the clinic, on its own, with no client supervision bringing suit.

  • Guest
    10:52 AM April 14, 2010

    The clients were Assateague Coastkeeper and the Waterkeeper Alliance. Here’s the complaint: http://www.law.umaryland.edu/about/features/enviroclinic/documents/Waterkeeper_Complaint.pdf