Funding restored to law clinic

Lawmakers reverse decision targeting school that launched lawsuit

April 07, 2010|By Annie Linskey | annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Annapolis lawmakers will not withhold any funds from the University of Maryland's law clinic for pursuing an unpopular environmental lawsuit, quieting a debate about academic freedom that raged in the state legislature last week.

The decision reverses an earlier position taken by senators and House Appropriations members who initially were outraged that the law students named a small Eastern Shore farmer in an environmental lawsuit that targeted poultry giant Perdue.

"It is hugely disappointing to the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore that the law school targets an industry that is so vitally important," Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican, said Tuesday evening.

But other lawmakers, including House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman Conway of the Eastern Shore, said they believed the university had heard their concerns.

The decision to restore funding was made Tuesday night by a handful of lawmakers attempting to reconcile differences between the House- and Senate-passed budgets. Their compromise will need to be approved again by both chambers.

The law clinic still will be asked to turn over information about its clients for the last two years and its outside funding sources. But, by uncoupling that report from the clinic's budget, the legislature has "relieved them of any responsibility for giving an honest answer," Stoltzfus said.

The issue churned up an intense debate about academic freedom at the state's top law school last month when senators voted overwhelmingly to withhold $250,000 from the school's budget until it turned over client lists and funding sources. Their hope was to send a message that the law school should not target small farmers when choosing cases.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said he shared the concerns of the Eastern Shore lawmakers, saying that an individual farmer can't defend himself against "deep pockets."

Law school Dean Phoebe Haddon said she traveled to Annapolis and met with Conway twice, assuring him that the school would produce the report and the budgetary threat was unnecessary.

She also met with Stoltzfus, saying that the clinic would consider cases brought by small farmers as well, Stoltzfus recalled.

Haddon said in a statement last week she was "very thankful" when the House removed the funding freeze from the budget.

Some had contended that the Eastern Shore lawmakers who wanted to hold up funds were acting on behalf of Perdue, one of the largest job providers in that part of the state, a charge they deny.

Also, Perdue representatives have said they are unconcerned about defending themselves against the legal case but worry about the impact the case will have on Alan and Kristin Hudson, a couple named in the suit.

The family, like many small farmers in the area, has a contract with Perdue to grow chickens. The suit alleges that under the direction of Perdue, the family polluted by improperly storing chicken manure near a drainage ditch that empties into the Chesapeake Bay. The family was fined $4,000 last month by the Department of the Environment, which closed its inquiry.

The Hudsons' lawyer has said the legal costs incurred defending the suit could bankrupt the farm, which has been operating for more than 100 years.

The budget conference committee also erased a check box on the Maryland state income tax forms for people to donate money to a public campaign fund. That fund has not been used in recent memory.

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