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Chicken suit

With the 2010 Maryland General Assembly coming to a close today, lawmakers have decided they're OK with state taxpayers subsidizing Robert F. Kennedy's legal campaign against a major employer in the state, the poultry industry.

The University of Maryland's Environmental Law Clinic caused the controversy when law students provided pro bono assistance to two environmental groups, Assateague Coastkeeper and the Kennedy-founded Waterkeeper Alliance, in filing suit against the Alan and Kristin Hudson Farm, a Perdue-contract chicken factory farm in Berlin, Md., and the poultry giant, Perdue Farms, Inc. The Clean Water Act complaint, filed March 1 in U.S. District Court, claimed the operations were responsible for illegal discharges into the Chesapeake Bay watershed. (News release, complaint.)

Several Eastern Shore legislators were incensed at the University of Maryland's School of Law allowing its clinical program to promote the litigation. In floor debate in March, state Sen. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Somerset County Republican, warned that harassment of the industry could drive it to North Carolina: "We are concerned that our university system not be a tool to further expedite that movement south, because the poultry industry is huge. It's very important."

Senators sought to withhold $500,000 from the Law School until it completed a report on its legal clinics' clients and expenditures, but the lawmakers retreated in the face of organized outrage from legal circles, academics, environmentalists and other activists, as well as the media over the supposed attacks against academic freedom. The House of Delegates dropped the funding demand, and the Senate went along in last week's budget negotiations.

A Washington Post editorial, "Md. legislators' unsavory threat," captured the basic argument against the legislative maneuver: "The message for colleges and universities in the state is as clear as it is disturbing: Mess with a legislator's big corporate constituents or offend his sensibilities, and you can expect retaliation. It's good that the funding threat was dropped, but it never should have been made at all."

But how else can policymakers hold an arm of the state, the University of Maryland Law School, accountable? The Environmental Law Clinic is using state funds to aid environmental organizations that actively oppose state policy as established by the General Assembly. You would think editorial writers would embrace oversight and accountability.

Besides, the Waterkeeper Alliance is perfectly capable of financing its litigation through private contributions. Maryland is in the midst of a state budget crisis, and its spending priorities are out of whack if the Legislature cannot eliminate state subsidies to Robert F. Kennedy's litigation machine. You don't see West Virginia's legislators helping to finance his campaign against coal.

If only to make a point, Alan and Kristin Hudson -- who are just farmers, after all -- should make a public appeal for assistance from the University of Maryland's clinical law programs. Surely academic independence would demand that the faculty and law students jump to the Hudsons' aid.

UPDATE (3 p.m.): The New York Times editorialized predictably on the controversy today, "First, They Get Rid of the Law Clinics," complaining about industry pressure: "Law school clinics give students real-world experience in advocacy and provide underserved communities with legal representation." Sure, like the underserved Waterkeeper Alliance.

We read the headline to be an allusion to Martin Niemoeller's famous saying, starting, "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist..." Which, taken to its logical conclusion, would make state legislators from the Eastern Shore ...

Nah, it's probably just hack headline writing.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.