Maryland Law Clinic Activities Scrutinized by State Legislators, Part Deux

We posted last week about Maryland state legislators threatening to cut funding to the University of Maryland School of Law unless it turned over information identifying some clinical program clients.  This demand arose from some legislators’ opposition to the environmental clinic’s involvement in a suit that targeted Perdue Farms.  (If we’ve said it once we’ve said it a thousand times here at the PSLawNet Blog – litigators must tread lightly when dealing with Big Chicken.)

The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board’s pushback against the legislators’ strong-arming, which was what prompted our initial post, was a bit ahead of the news cycle.  Subsequently, the Sun covered the story in an article, as did the Washington Post.

Yesterday, the National Law Journal picked up on the square-off between the legislature and the law school…

The fight stems from a lawsuit that the school’s environmental law clinic filed on March 2 on behalf of an environmental group against poultry giant Perdue Farms and a chicken farmer who supplies the company. The lawsuit contends that the defendants are illegally discharging pollution into the Franklin Branch and Pocomoke River, which feed into the Chesapeake Bay.

Last week, the Maryland Senate passed a budget amendment that would require the University of Maryland’s environmental law clinic to disclose its expenditures and client roster for the past two years; if the school refused, the university would lose $250,000 in state funding. That amendment was a compromise from an earlier proposal by State Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus that would require all of the school’s 23 clinics to turn over information for the past five years.

Lowell told the Washington Post that he is worried that the clinics are bad for business because law students could overwhelm small chicken farmers who must pay to defend against the suits. The Maryland House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on several amendments Thursday that would tie the reporting of legal clinic information to as much as $750,000 in university funding.

“It’s a serious concern,” said Maryland law Dean Phoebe Haddon. “We understand that we are a public institution and have to be accountable for the work we do. We have responded to requests for information when asked, but we are always careful in case those requests broach confidentiality or other professional responsibility-related issues. I’m concerned about the allocation of funding being tied to this reporting.”

[Full Disclosure: Dean Haddon taught the PSLawNet Blog torts in the Fall of 2000, while we were both at the glorious Temple University School of Law in Philadelphia, PA – home of the 2008 World Champion Phildelphia Phillies.]  Where were we?  According to the NLJ, this controversy has attracted the attention of law school clinical community.

The move by Maryland legislators is the latest in string of attempts by government officials and others to gain access to information about law school clinics. Law schools have consistently resisted those attempts, arguing that clinics are entitled to the same attorney-client privilege as are law firms and other attorneys.

“These actions demonstrate a failure to understand the professional responsibilities of lawyers and the structure of contemporary legal education,” Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA) President Robert Kuehn said in a written statement. “Unfortunately, those attacking the law clinics appear more concerned about protecting favored businesses from compliance with the law than supporting one of their state’s flagship schools.”

Clinical educators are circulating a petition opposing the Maryland legislation. The American Bar Association has not yet weighed in on the Maryland situation, but the group’s Council on Legal Education adopted a statement in 1983 that calls for the organization to assist schools in preserving the independence of their clinics.

“Improper attempts by persons or institutions outside law schools to interfere in the ongoing activities of law school clinical programs and courses have an adverse impact on the quality of the educational mission of affected law schools and jeopardize principles of law school self-governance, academic freedom, and ethical independence under the ABA Code of Professional Responsibility,” the statement reads.

The article notes that clinical programs at the University of Michigan School of Law and Rutgers School of Law – Newark have come under pressure – from a prosecutor and a land developer (via open records laws), respectively – to reveal information about their activities. 

As regards public institutions, these cases do raise interesting questions about what public officials have a right to know, and where that right is superseded by the the clinical programs’ obligations to principles of client confidentiality.

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