Baltimore Sun Editorial Board Sticks up for U. of Maryland Legal Clinics (Or, be careful about suing a well-connected chicken man)

The participation of some U. of Maryland School of Law clinical students in an environmental lawsuit has apparently drawn the ire of some state lawmakers, who are threatening to withhold funding to the school unless it produces a list of all plaintiffs that clinical program students have represented in the past two years.

From the Sun Editorial Board’s “Second Opinion” page:

Make no mistake, the state Senate has done much more than express some idle curiosity about the University of Maryland’s law clinics. Budget language approved by the Senate this week includes a not-so-subtle message: Be careful who you let your law students represent.

The tactics have all the charm of what Sen. Jim Brochin calls “something straight out of communist China.” The University of Maryland School of Law is being ordered to produce a list of all the plaintiffs their students have represented over the past two years or lose $250,000 in funding.

And that’s the nicest version of the proposal. Delegates are considering a 5-year, $750,000 smack in the face.What’s particularly galling is that the assault on the law school’s academic freedom and the independence of its fledgling lawyers is all because some students had the temerity to help some Eastern Shore residents and environmental groups go after polluters.

One might assume a lawsuit aimed at reducing pollution into a Pocomoke River tributary would be regarded as a good thing, but the one filed earlier this year on behalf of the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Waterkeeper Alliance names Perdue Farms as a defendant. Perdue is the nation’s third largest poultry company with $4.6 billion in sales — and a lot of political muscle in this state….

No doubt if the Maryland law students were filing frivolous actions that had little chance in court, Perdue with its deep pockets and out-of-town lawyers would simply shrug and stomp them out. But the worry is clearly that the facts and the law are not on their side.

If lawmakers were genuinely curious about the law school clinics, they might have made a phone call before they started taking the school’s budget hostage. If they had, they’d discover the clinical law program is ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report and that it provides an invaluable service as the largest provider of free legal advice to the state’s disadvantaged. It should be regarded with pride rather than suspicion; all Maryland law students are required to do some pro bono work on behalf of the community, a rarity in academia.

What’s the harm in providing a list of clients? Not every person who has sought legal representation — from the AIDS clinic patient to the homeowner seeking expert help to avoid foreclosure — wants that fact publicized for the whole world to see. You can bet lawmakers know that.

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