This Tuesday, a New Jersey state appeals panel heard arguments on whether Rutgers University’s state-funded environmental law clinic must disclose client names and finances. Developer Sussex Commons claims the clinic is avoiding financial accountability in order to promote an “anti-development political agenda and bias.” The suit, which came after the clinic sued Sussex to halt construction on a planned strip mall, is the newest in a string of corporate challenges to the autonomy of university clinics.
The most well publicized clinic challenge occurred earlier this month at the University of Maryland. Last month, the state Senate approved a bill that, if signed into law, would strip the university of $250,000 for refusing to disclose client information. The bill was introduced after the clinic challenged the environmental record of one of the state’s largest employers, Perdue poultry. Maryland Republican Michael Smigiel said such programs shouldn’t use taxpayer dollars to advocate controversial issues. “I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of taxpayers who would be uncomfortable funding the legal clinic if it was solely intereseted in just promoting the death penalty or pro-life issues,” he said. Clinic critics have so far made similar arguments in Michigan and Louisiana.
What Smigiel didn’t mention was that thanks to their lack of government intervention, law clinics provide students important real-world expeirence, and are often the only groups to go after powerful actors for civil rights violations or corporate misconduct. And, as PopTort points out, a world without law clinics is a world without Legally Blonde. But after citing his knee jerk support for clinics, Bill Araiza of PrawfsBlawg wonders if state legislatures should have the right to see where its money is spent.
In a statement, American Bar Association president Carolyn Lamm said that requiring clinics to disclose client information could stigmatize the practice for potential clients. “This could result in their not seeking and receiving the legal assistance that they need,” she said. And in an editorial this Sunday, the New York Times proclaimed its strong support for the clinics, saying clinic autonomy is essential. “Law school clinics often provide the only legal assistance available to poor people.” the editorial concludes. “Some powerful interests may not like that, but it is critically important work.”
This sentiment rings true here at GJEL because we value the ability to fight for the little guy. GJEL takes all clients on a contingency basis, which means that we don’t get paid unless our client wins. Under this system, like law clinics, someone without significant financial power can take on the country’s biggest corporations.