Poultry power play

Make no mistake, the state Senate has done much more than express some idle curiosity about the University of Maryland's law clinics. Budget language approved by the Senate last week includes a not-so-subtle message: Be careful whom you let your law students represent.

The tactics have all the charm of what Sen. Jim Brochin calls "something straight out of communist China." The University of Maryland School of Law is being ordered to produce a list of all the plaintiffs its students have represented over the past two years or lose $250,000 in funding.

And that's the nicest version of the proposal. Delegates are considering a five-year, $750,000 smack in the face.

What's particularly galling is that the assault on the law school's academic freedom and the independence of its fledgling lawyers is all because some students had the temerity to help some Eastern Shore residents and environmental groups go after polluters.

One might assume a lawsuit aimed at reducing pollution into a Pocomoke River tributary would be regarded as a good thing, but the one filed earlier this year on behalf of the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Waterkeeper Alliance names Perdue Farms as a defendant. Perdue is the nation's third-largest poultry company, with $4.6 billion in sales -- and a lot of political muscle in this state.

Chairman Jim Perdue has said publicly that he fears more such Clean Water Act enforcement lawsuits will be filed against Perdue growers and is making noises about moving some of his business out of state (which would seem puzzling, since the federal Clean Water Act standards are national and lawyers to enforce them are known to exist beyond Maryland's borders).

The proper response to such threats ought to be to tell Mr. Perdue that while the state is proud of what he and his family have accomplished, protecting the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and creeks from the harmful effects of nutrient-rich farm runoff (whether from chicken manure or sewage sludge used to fertilize crops) is just as important to this state's economy as chicken processing.

No doubt if the Maryland law students were filing frivolous actions that had little chance in court, Perdue, with its deep pockets and out-of-town lawyers, would simply shrug and stomp them out. But the worry is clearly that the facts and the law are not on their side. The Maryland Department of the Environment has investigated the incident that prompted the lawsuit but taken only modest enforcement action to date, announcing Friday that the farm's owner will be fined $4,000 for improperly storing sludge.

If lawmakers were genuinely curious about the clinics, they might have made a phone call before they started taking the school's budget hostage. If they had, they'd discover the clinical law program was ranked eighth in the nation last year by U.S. News & World Report and that it provides an invaluable service as the largest provider of free legal advice to the state's disadvantaged. It should be regarded with pride rather than suspicion; all Maryland law students are required to do some pro bono work on behalf of the community, a rarity in academia.

What's the harm in providing a list of clients? Not every person who has sought legal representation -- from the AIDS clinic patient to the homeowner seeking expert help to avoid foreclosure -- wants that fact publicized for the whole world to see. You can bet lawmakers know that.

It's no surprise that some legislators resent students from a taxpayer-supported school "stirring up trouble" in their districts. Legal aid often draws similar feelings when the rights of criminal suspects are vigorously defended. But this attempt to intimidate is not only misguided but potentially harmful to the school and its reputation. If Maryland truly wants to be regarded as a state with a knowledge-based economy, it ought not be seen foolishly embracing such blatant stupidity.

Readers respond

Providing free legal advice to the state's disadvantaged is one thing, but the Assateague Costal Trust and Waterkeeper Alliance don't fall into that group. State funds support the agriculture, environment and natural resources departments, which have legislative mandates to preserve and protect the environment. The others are self-appointed, self-supported and should not have access to resources intended for the poor.

Mike Cantwell