O'Malley sticks his nose where it doesn't belong

There are two sides to every dispute. Next time Gov. Martin O'Malley has the sudden desire to bully the environmental law clinic at the University of Maryland, he ought to keep that in mind. Perhaps if he or his staff had bothered to talk to students at the clinic, he would not have written his odious letter to Maryland School of Law Dean Phoebe A. Haddon this week.

It's hard to say what's more shocking — that the governor, a lawyer himself, would attempt to interfere with ongoing civil litigation (much less without ever talking to the plaintiffs or their lawyers to get their side of the story), or that he would take the side of polluters against those who are simply trying to enforce federal law. Not only has he acted irresponsibly in violating principles of law and academic freedom, but his behavior seems wholly antithetical to someone with aspirations for the national political stage.


In his letter, Mr. O'Malley says the lawsuit brought by the students at the clinic on behalf of the Waterkeeper Alliance and Assateague Coastal Trust against farmers Alan and Kristin Hudson and Perdue Farms is a "state-sponsored injustice and misuse of taxpayer resources." Never mind that the lawsuit's cost has been paid through donations to these nonprofit advocacy groups by Marylanders who merely want to see Maryland's creeks and rivers less polluted by poultry manure and other excess nutrients coming from poorly regulated farms.

The more fundamental question is, how could the governor possibly know who is in the right? The litigants have only in recent days filed motions summarizing their arguments to a U.S. District Court judge in advance of a March trial date. Unless Mr. O'Malley is omniscient, he could not be fully informed. More likely, he has been swayed by representatives of the poultry industry and those who have portrayed the Hudsons as "victims" of a government-subsidized witch hunt.


That's a very convenient narrative for the defendants. And if the Hudsons are exonerated by the court, it may even prove true. But based on the evidence presented by the law clinic so far, it appears that concerns over pollution from their Eastern Shore farm are justified, and the matter is at bare minimum a whole lot less cut-and-dried than the governor believes. At least the judge in the case must think so, as he's already ruled against the defendant's motion to dismiss.

Last year, some of the General Assembly's more conservative lawmakers tried to assert similar pressure to get the University of Maryland to drop the case. Their fellow legislators recognized the folly of this and refused. But Mr. O'Malley's heavy-handed conduct is worse. As governor, he has the power to deny state funding to the law school with the stroke of a pen, and from the bully pulpit of his office, his pronouncements can sway public opinion and the courts.

Kudos to Dean Haddon for refusing to buckle under such pressure and sticking up for the clinic and the rule of law. "I am uneasy about your decision to express in a letter — that now has become public — your opinion directly on the merits of a matter currently in active litigation. Such statements have the potential to become highly prejudicial, undermining the integrity of the judicial process and the independence of the lawyers' relationship with their clients."

Mr. O'Malley also seems to have the impression the students working in a law clinic should only represent certain types of clients. He noted that when he worked in a clinic at the school, he represented "battered women and other persons who could not afford to pay for an attorney."

While advocating for victims of abuse is certainly a noble cause, the governor might want to take a closer look at exactly what the environmental law clinic is doing. The plaintiffs are not rich, and the lawsuit is not just against the Hudsons but also against Perdue, one of the nation's largest poultry processors. The aim is to enforce existing law to the benefit of the residents of Maryland who want their waterways less tainted by animal waste, fertilizers and sewage sludge spread on farm fields.

The case has the poultry industry up in arms. But is that because a fourth-generation farmer might be hurt or because it might force companies like Perdue to take greater responsibility for the waste their chickens generate?

If the Chesapeake Bay was polluted only by large corporations dumping toxic materials into the water, the business of pollution control would be relatively simple. But it doesn't work that way. Sometimes the polluters are big companies, but often they are not. If farmers get a free pass from government regulators and the courts, there's little chance the bay's problems can be reversed; agricultural runoff is simply too large a source of pollution to be ignored.

Finally, one has to wonder if Mr. O'Malley's temperament is getting the best of him again. It's an aspect of his nature that sometimes got him in trouble as Baltimore's mayor but seemed less evident as governor. At age 48, he ought to be able to exercise better judgment than to intimidate a law school dean over a civil matter best left to the federal court.