Thursday, April 8, 2010

Law School Boogaloo

I sounded the alarm about corporate influence over higher education last month with this post, "When Corporations Go To College.”

Now I’ve been alerted to an even more nefarious mechanism by which major corporations are wielding their influence and stifling those who challenge them. By trying to block legal challenges made by law school clinics:
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Law school students nationwide are facing growing attacks in the courts and legislatures as legal clinics at the schools increasingly take on powerful interests that few other nonprofit groups have the resources to challenge.

On Friday, lawmakers here debated a measure to cut money for the University of Maryland’s law clinic if it does not provide details to the legislature about its clients, finances and cases.

The measure, which is likely to be sent to the governor this week, comes in response to a suit filed in March by students accusing one of the state’s largest employers, Perdue, of environmental violations — the first effort in the state to hold a poultry company accountable for the environmental impact of its chicken suppliers.

Wow. That’s some serious hardball. Sounds to me like Perdue used its cronies in the state legislature to threaten the university’s law school with a cut in funds because it didn’t like a case the law clinic took. (Perdue denies such intimidation, of course.)

Sound fantastical? No stranger than Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey allegedly pressuring a state senator to drop his mountaintop removal ban bill at the behest of a big contributor . Or the time the coal industry tried to weaken state clean water laws regulating selenium with generous campaign donations. Or the time King Pharmaceuticals tried to buy the Tennessee Republican Party. I mean come on, people. Shit like this happens in Tennessee all the time.

I wonder what would happen if the University of Tennessee College of Law’s clinic took on, say, King Pharmaceuticals? Would Vanderbilt’s Legal Clinic have taken on Massey Energy when Gordon Gee was VU chancellor? One has to wonder: he served on their board of directors.

Back to our story:

Law clinics at other universities — from New Jersey to Michigan to Louisiana — are facing similar challenges. And legal experts say the attacks jeopardize the work of the clinics, which not only train students with hands-on courtroom experience at more than 200 law schools but also have taken on more cases against companies and government agencies in recent years.

“We’re seeing a very strong pushback from deep-pocket interests, and that pushback is creating a chilling effect on many clinics,” said Robert R. Kuehn, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, citing a recent survey he conducted that found that more than a third of faculty members at legal clinics expressed fears about university or state reaction to their casework and that a sixth said they had turned down unpopular clients because of these concerns.

Of course, corporate interests and politicians have all sorts of defenses for what is basically a baltant intimidation tactic. The truth is, small non-profit groups like environmental and citizens organizations don’t have the massive legal resources of a big corporation like Perdue or a government agency. Law clinics are often their only legal resource.

States American Bar Association President Carolyn Lamm of the Maryland case:

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. I call on lawyers in every state to remember their professional obligation to uphold the independence of their profession, and speak out against intimidation whenever they see it. 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.

Corporations continue to grow in might and power, using their considerable weight to stack regulatory agencies and control the government in the interest of their profits over the public good. This is just one more example. Keep your eyes open, people.