Maryland environmental law clinic focuses on enforcement

University program under fire for pursuing pollution case

  • Jane Barrett, director of the environmental law clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law, talks with third year law student Courtney Leas before class.
Jane Barrett, director of the environmental law clinic at the… (Algerina perna, Baltimore…)
November 24, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Thelma Boyd and her Cheverly-area neighbors were at their wits' end when they connected with the University of Maryland's environmental law clinic.

She and other residents of distressed, predominantly black neighborhoods on the outskirts of Washington had tried in vain to get local officials to keep a concrete plant from being built in their midst. Fearing a potential health threat, they felt their only recourse was to go to court but couldn't find a lawyer to take their case.

"That's not the kind of case people will take," said Boyd, 87, who's lived there 56 years. "They want money. We have no money."

The Prince George's County fight is one of a dozen environmental disputes being handled this year by the Baltimore clinic, which has become embroiled in political controversy over another case, a pollution lawsuit against an Eastern Shore chicken farm and the Perdue Farms poultry company. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Maryland law graduate himself, recently joined the chorus of criticism from farm groups and Eastern Shore lawmakers, accusing the clinic of pursuing a "questionable" case that threatens to drive the fourth-generation farm out of business. Some lawmakers say they plan to try to cut the clinic's funding or limit who it can sue.

This isn't the first time one of the university's 23 law clinics has found itself in political hot water. In the 1980s, Gov. William Donald Schaefer briefly barred them from using state funds to sue state agencies. Last year, Annapolis lawmakers upset over the Shore lawsuit threatened to withhold funds from the University of Maryland, Baltimore until the law school turned over a list of the environmental clinic's clients and expenditures.

Founded 24 years ago to represent citizens concerned about the Chesapeake Bay, the environmental law clinic provides real-world training to students in the complex and contentious world of environmental law and regulation. It is widely regarded as one of the top clinics of its type in the country. As a graduation requirement, every full-time student of the law school must "provide legal services to people who are poor or otherwise lack access to justice."

"This clinic is an enforcement and advocacy clinic," said its director, Jane F. Barrett, a veteran lawyer who before joining the law faculty prosecuted environmental crimes in the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore and then defended accused polluters in a Washington-based private practice. "We represent clients who are interested in enforcing environmental laws."

Under the guidance of professors and staff lawyers, the clinic's 10 students file comments on pollution rules and challenge permits for sewage plants, trash incinerators and factories. They write legal briefs, file lawsuits and even argue cases before judges, up to and including Maryland's highest court.

In brief group and individual interviews, the students all said the clinic work was challenging but invaluable in gaining practical experience in applying the law. The mission also appealed to many.

"Because I care about the environment, I wanted to be a better steward," said Patrick McDonough, a third-year student from San Diego. "I really wanted to come here to learn to be an attorney, learn how to use those skills and then dedicate my career toward protecting the environment."

Many hoped to find work with government or nonprofit groups after graduation, but others indicated they would be willing to work for corporations or in law firms representing businesses — "whoever will hire me," one said.

Their clients include environmental groups, community associations and individuals. Though most clients are not indigent, they are not wealthy, either. If people seeking the clinic's help have the money to hire a lawyer, Barrett said, it won't represent them. She says she also turns away inquiries to keep the clinic's workload manageable.

Controversy has centered on one particular client, the Waterkeeper Alliance, a New York-based umbrella organization for nearly 200 water-quality watchdogs on six continents. The alliance is the plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Hudson farm in Berlin and against Perdue, and critics have complained about the clinic working for a "deep-pocket" out-of-state group headed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

"Quite frankly, I'm not sure why we're providing taxpayer-provided service to an outfit that's got money in the bank," said Del. Michael A. McDermott, a Republican who represents Wicomico and Worcester counties. "Do we want taxpayer dollars being used against other Marylanders?"

The clinic's defenders say the criticism is off-base. The alliance has 13 chapters in Maryland, keeping tabs on rivers and waters of the Chesapeake Bay. And while all operate under the waterkeeper name, they are financially independent, having to raise their own funds for staff and expenses.

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