The Maryland state legislature is demanding records detailing how the University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic used state funds to sue farmers raising poultry in the state. Legislators say spending state funds on such suits is the equivalent of handing state money over to environmental activist groups.
Clinic Draws Legislative Ire
The Environmental Law Clinic provides free legal services for environmental litigation and advocacy and serves as a learning environment for third-year law students under the guidance of an environmental law fellow who is director of the clinic.
The Environmental Law Clinic ran afoul of the legislature after the clinic filed lawsuits against poultry farmers under the Clean Water Act. State Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset) sponsored a bill in the senate to remove $250,000 in appropriations to the university if it failed to provide a breakdown of the center’s clients and budgets over the past two years.
On April 6 the Maryland House of Delegates and State Senate agreed to strike amendments to the State’s Fiscal Year 2011 Budget that would have penalized the school by removing $500,000 in funding until the school complied with the requests. Instead, the Assembly issued a narrative requiring reporting on Environmental Law Clinics cases over the last two years without threatening the withholding of funds.
Dean Phoebe Haddon issued a statement saying, “The Law School appreciates the willingness of the Assembly to replace restrictions on university appropriations with a ‘narrative’ that requests non-privileged information about some of our cases, but without withholding funding.”
Haddon added, “Although I remain convinced that the obligation to report on cases in active litigation interferes with the judicial process, I recognize the hard work that has led to this point.”
Picking and Choosing Targets
Randolph J. May, president of the Free State Foundation, a think tank based in Maryland, suggests micromanaging the law clinic is not the best approach.
“I don’t think it is inappropriate for the legislature to be inquiring about the activities of publicly funded entities, including the types of lawsuits brought by publicly funded law clinics,” May said. “Let’s remember the state has no obligation to fund an environmental clinic at the law school at all.
“Having said that, absent evidence that the law school clinic consistently is bringing suits without legal merit, I don’t think it is wise—or a good use of its time—for the legislature to get involved in looking at each case the law clinic is bringing. Ultimately the courts will judge the merits of the individual cases,” said May.
Legislature’s Fiduciary Duty
Dee Hodges, president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association, a grassroots organization in the state, argues the legislature has a responsibility to look into such matters. “Branches of state government are funded by the governor and state legislature. A fiduciary duty of elected representatives is to examine and pass on what it is funding,” she said.
Under its discretion, “the legislature has refused to fund certain groups,” Hodges noted. “Therefore, the legislature should not feel obligated to fund, under the cover of some sort of client privacy, [some of the] groups. Should the legislature specify that these law student clinics cannot use taxpayer money to fund such pursuits the legislature would not otherwise fund? Shouldn’t the clinics be required to raise outside money for such projects?”
“Government has tended to push toward group advocacy as opposed to ensuring individual rights,” Hodges added. “The poultry business is being slowly pushed out of Maryland, as is farming in general. Business in general is being pushed out due to overreaching government, regulation, and excessive taxation. Maryland is a state with huge advantages that could further economic growth and higher living standards if only government fostered the needed conditions.”
Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.
Maryland House budget amendment: http://www.law.umaryland.edu/about/features/enviroclinic/house_amendment.html