April 3, 2010; New York Times | Few nonprofits have sufficient financial resources to mount legal challenges on their own to fight for causes that range from workers’ rights to immigration reform to the protection of the environment. But now, many of these groups face the prospect of losing much needed assistance of their frequent allies in these battle—college and university law school clinics that are coming under attack from state lawmakers who say they are improperly using taxpayer funds.
According to the New York Times, “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.” As an example of the push-backs clinics are dealing with, state lawmakers are expected to send a bill to the governor this week that would cut funds for the University of Maryland’s law clinic unless it provides detailed information to legislators about its clients, finances and causes.
The Times says the pending action is in response to a suit that students brought in March that accuses the Perdue chicken producer of environmental violations. Like the pending legislation in Maryland, other threats around the country to curtail the work of legal clinics are already causing some to tread more carefully. The Times reports that Robert R. Kuehn, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, conducted a survey 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.”
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As another example of what happens when legal clinics draw the ire of lawmakers and corporate interests, some Louisiana legislators are pushing a bill that would ban law clinics that receive public money from suing government agencies, companies or individuals for damages. The action followed a the Tulane Law School suit filed on behalf of a pro-environment group to compel federal regulators to do a better job enforcing air quality standards in the Baton Rouge area.
A Republican state senator, who introduced the bill at the urging of oil and gas interests, charges students are acting like regulators and they shouldn’t use tax money for that purpose. One wonders how long before legal clinics take on a new case—how to win the right to keep fighting for the much smaller Davids who don’t have the money to take on Goliaths.—Bruce Trachtenberg