Legislature undermines rule of law

Maryland's General Assembly is being justly criticized for considering holding at least $500,000 hostage to demands for information about clients of the University of Maryland School of Law's environmental clinic. This is in response to a clinic lawsuit, alleging pollution of Chesapeake Bay, filed on behalf of the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Waterkeeper Alliance. One of the defendants is Perdue Farms.

Most of the criticism of these budgetary restrictions has contended that they would undermine both the ethically mandated independence of the clinic's lawyer-teacher and students and academic freedom. Those points are absolutely right.

But the proposed restrictions do even more harm: They target the rule of law itself, and they betray the citizen groups who seek to enforce it. The goal of the current measures is to punish the law school and the citizen groups it represents for seeking to enforce the law, to deter them from doing it again, and to do an end-run around the judicial process.

I know law enforcement when I see it. And that is exactly what the faculty and students in the law school's clinics are doing for those who are too poor to retain private lawyers. Their sin, in the eyes of the sponsors of the budgetary restrictions, is precisely that they are seeking to enforce the laws that protect the Chesapeake Bay.

It is not only laws that protect the bay that the clinics enforce but also laws, among others, that guarantee children proper special-education services, essential medical care for the elderly, the right of homeowners to challenge fraud-based foreclosures and the right of communities to protect themselves from crime and decay.

Sometimes, these are state laws. When the clinics enforce them, they implement the intent of the Maryland General Assembly. Sometimes, the clinics enforce federal laws, which the state is duty-bound to obey. In either case, the clinics provide clients with indispensable help in protecting their legal rights, and in the process, they vindicate the law enforcement interests of the state itself.

If adopted, the restrictions will do damage even if they do not actually deter the clinics. It is not just the clinic's law professors who teach. As the great Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis observed: "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example."

The lesson, unfortunately, that the pending legislation will teach is this: Powerful private interests can use government as a whip to intimidate lawyers for citizen groups who sue them to enforce laws they may be violating. It is hard to imagine a more pernicious lesson for all of us, including the University of Maryland law school's students and the clients whom they help to represent. It is a message that other governmental bodies will hear and that some undoubtedly will act upon.

It is a message that the nation will hear as well. Maryland law school's clinics rank in the top 3-5 percent of law school clinics nationally, ahead of those of almost all of the elite private law schools. They bring our university system national acclaim. They provide an extraordinary education to students and essential services to our residents.

Our state government also is nationally respected, especially for its support for education, including higher education.

Adopting the restrictions will diminish the national reputations of both state and university.

It is not too late for cooler heads to prevail. As one who is proud of our legislature and has great respect for its leaders, I hope so.

Stephen H. Sachs served as United States Attorney for Maryland from 1967 to 1970 and as Maryland's Attorney General from 1979 to 1987. His e-mail is