Lawmakers threaten to stall UM funding over poultry-farm lawsuit

March 27, 2010|By Annie Linskey and Timothy B. Wheeler

A suit by the University of Maryland's environmental law clinic that accuses poultry giant Perdue Farms and a small Eastern Shore farmer of pollution has angered Annapolis lawmakers, who are threatening to hold up hundreds of thousands of dollars in the university's budget.

Some lawmakers warn that the school could harm the region's fragile agriculture industry. They see farmers Alan and Kristin Hudson as victims of an over-reaching student project and want to send a message that the school should not use taxpayer funds to battle a small business during a recession.

"What I'm hoping is they'll have more sensitivity," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and farmer. "Engage in a lawsuit against an individual, struggling farmer? It could be any of us. It makes the rest of us wonder, 'Is it worth it?' Farming and agriculture on the Eastern Shore seems to be under attack." A lawyer for the Hudsons said it's unlikely that the couple can defend against the lawsuit without losing their land.

The criticism has stirred a larger debate over academic freedom at the state's premier law school, while raising old questions about the appropriate role for the General Assembly in influencing decisions there. Some legislators criticize the funding threat, and the law school dean said legislative demands could have a "chilling effect" on the clinic.

But Middleton and 34 other senators have demanded that the law clinic turn over a list of clients and expenditures for the past two years, threatening to hold up $250,000 if the university does not comply. A similar measure in the House would freeze $500,000 in funding.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore Democrat, said the measure "will make our law school the laughingstock of higher education." Sen. Brian E. Frosh said the General Assembly was "holding a gun" to the school. Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, called the required report a move "straight from Communist China."

Robert R. Kuehn, president of a national association of clinical law educators, said the legislators' move is the latest political backlash against unpopular legal actions brought by such clinics. Kuehn, co-director of an environmental law clinic at Washington University in St. Louis, said the move was "an attempt to scare or intimidate the clinical law program."

The debate reminded many of last year's flap when some lawmakers threatened to withhold funding from the University of Maryland if it showed a pornographic film. The university pledged not show the film, but a student group held a viewing. The General Assembly asked the university to develop guidelines about such events.

And the dispute comes on the heels of a state audit that questioned $410,000 in bonus payments to a former law school dean. The president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore retired early because of his handling of the payments, and the former dean, Karen Rothenberg, has offered to repay a portion.

But it's not the first time an attempt has been made to limit the Maryland law school. In the 1980s, Gov. William Donald Schaefer barred the use of state funds to sue state agencies, but he later backed off, requiring only that state agencies be given a warning before being hauled into court.

Phoebe A. Haddon, the law school's dean, sent an e-mail to her students saying she is "deeply opposed" to the legislature's recent actions.

The Senate measure, she said, "interferes with the ability of our law school to control its academic program."

In an interview, Haddon said tying the information demand to the school's funding creates a "chilling effect" on how the clinic and its student lawyers operate. "I don't understand how it could not impact your judgment in the future, if you think somebody's watching you, asking you for information and tying it to their money."

The state funds about 30 percent of the law school's $46 million budget.

Clinic students in December helped prepare a suit at the behest of two environmental groups, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Assateague Coastkeeper. The complaint alleged that the Hudson farm was fouling a drainage ditch leading to the Pocomoke River, about three miles away.

The groups also are seeking to hold Perdue Farms accountable, arguing that it bears responsibility for what happens on farms where its birds are raised.

The clinic, which has 10 students, is designed to give students practical experience and is frequently named as one of the top programs in the country. Participation in one of the school's 23 law clinics is a graduation requirement.

In the past, the environmental law clinic has challenged state regulations and has filed lawsuits over alleged pollution. It has a budget of $160,000, and 12 percent of that comes from state general funds.

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