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Many Law School Clinics See ‘Pushback’ Over Their Legal Work

Posted Apr 5, 2010 9:19 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Updated: A legal clinic at the University of Maryland’s law school is not alone in fighting budget and disclosure threats that are tied to controversial cases being litigated by students.

In Maryland, the law clinic is at odds with legislators over a pollution suit students filed against poultry producer Perdue, one of the state’s largest employers. Some lawmakers have pushed to withhold funds from the legal clinic if it doesn’t provide information on clients and cases. On Friday, the Maryland House of Delegates passed a bill that does not withhold funds but requires the information, according to the Baltimore Sun and the Associated Press. The measure is at odds with a Senate bill withholding $250,000 if there is no disclosure.

Lawmakers reconciling the bills on Tuesday evening removed the threat to pull funds, but still required the information.

Law clinics in Michigan, Louisiana and New Jersey are also facing challenges, the New York Times reports.

A recent survey by Washington University law professor Robert Kuehn found that faculty members at many clinics are concerned. More than a third said they feared university or state reaction to their cases, and a sixth said they had turned down unpopular clients because of these concerns.

“We’re seeing a very strong pushback from deep-pocket interests, and that pushback is creating a chilling effect on many clinics,” Kuehn told the Times.

The article highlights these controversies at other law schools:

• The Louisiana Legislature is considering a bill that would bar law clinics that receive public money from seeking damages against government agencies, companies or individuals, absent a legislative exemption. The Times says the proposal is a response to a suit by the Tulane Law School clinic seeking better enforcement of air quality standards.

• A developer sued by a Rutgers University law clinic has in turn sued the legal clinic for documents designed to show how it uses taxpayer funds to discourage state investment. Kevin Kelly is the lawyer for the developer, Sussex Commons. “Like the hapless Wizard of Oz, the clinics want all attention directed elsewhere, while they struggle mightily to keep concealed their actual use of public funds,” Kelly wrote in a brief. An appeals court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case this month.

• A Michigan prosecutor wants University of Michigan law school students to testify against a man they had been seeking to exonerate.

ABA President Carolyn Lamm has criticized attempts in Maryland to obtain information, saying the proposed legislation was “an intrusion on the attorney-client relationship.”

“As president of the American Bar Association, I urge those who would undermine clinical law school programs to step back and remember that the rule of law cannot survive if pressure prevents lawyers from fulfilling their responsibilities to their clients,” she said in a statement (PDF).

Updated on April 7 to include action by Maryland lawmakers to remove the funding threat.

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