Law clinics at universities across Louisiana fear a state senator's proposal could force them to close, leaving their impoverished clients without free legal services in cases ranging from child support to water pollution.
Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said he's heard those concerns and plans to put limits on the legislation.
Both sides acknowledge the measure is aimed at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, which Adley and business lobbyists say has driven jobs from the state. The clinic's supporters argue its lawyers help community groups hold state and federal regulators accountable, to make sure they comply with pollution laws.
As it now stands, the bill — scheduled for a Wednesday hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee — would prevent all university law clinics from challenging government agencies in court, suing individuals for damages or making constitutional claims. That would limit access to justice for thousands of low-income Louisianians and prevent law schools from providing students with a complete legal education, legal experts argue.
The proposal comes at a time when law clinics nationwide find themselves under fire from legislatures, courts and industry interest groups. Environment-focused clinics, which tend to ruffle the feathers of businesses, are taking most of the heat.
Adley said he offered his proposal after chemical and oil industry lobbyists complained to him about lawsuits brought by the Tulane environmental clinic, including a suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators that would require them to enforce clean air regulations in the Baton Rouge area.
Dan Borne, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, criticized the Tulane clinic as having a "wanton disregard for the economic well being of the state" and "clearly anti-development agenda" that he said has scared away millions of investment dollars.
Tulane's environmental clinic drew fire from Gov. Mike Foster and industry groups when it sued in 1997 to block construction of the Shintech plastics plant in an impoverished, predominantly black community in St. James Parish. Tulane won a victory when Shintech abandoned its plans in favor of another smaller facility near Baton Rouge.
But while Adley and Borne focus on Tulane, the bill would affect all clinics in the state and the thousands of low-income clients they serve, said Robert Kuehn, president of the Clinical Legal Education Association.
"In wanting to kneecap Tulane, the Louisiana Chemical Association is going to kneecap all the state's law clinics," he said.
The legislation would have a drastic impact on all seven sections of Loyola University's law clinic, said Loyola spokesman Tommy Screen.
Stephen Griffin, interim dean of Tulane Law School, said without changes, Adley's proposal would shut down four of Tulane's seven clinics.
Messages left for the chancellors of the LSU and Southern University law schools were not returned.
After meeting with the presidents of Tulane and Loyola last week, Adley said he wants to amend the bill so it deals only with clinics that file lawsuits against businesses and the state that Adley said create an unfriendly climate for creating jobs. How that would be determined is unclear.
If clinics didn't comply, the universities could lose all state funding. Although Tulane is a private institution, it gets millions of dollars in state money. Loyola, a Jesuit university, gets about $925,000, Screen said.
Adley argues schools receiving state funds should not be allowed to sue the state.
Adam Babich, director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, said Adley misunderstands how the courts and government are intended to interact. Public participation in the process is essential, he said, and Tulane's student lawyers give voice to citizens' environmental concerns.
"If somebody in the state issues a permit that's not legal, it's in everyone's interest to get that resolved," Babich said.
Other law clinics around the country also are subject to scrutiny and legal fights. Clinics in Maryland, New Jersey and Michigan have faced recent challenges either through legislation or legal action.
Louisiana law clinics already operate under some of the strictest rules in the nation. After Tulane's victory in the Shintech case, industry groups complained to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which regulates law clinics, and the court limited the type of clients law clinics could represent to the most impoverished.
Babich said Adley's legislation in any form will be bad for Louisiana and its universities.
"This kind of action has the potential to just be a national embarrassment, damaging our reputation both in terms of good government and in terms of education," Babich said.
Some questioned the wisdom of moving forward on a bill targeting an environmental organization as an oil slick the size of Puerto Rico loomed off the Louisiana coast.
"It's ironic, of course, for essentially a bill that would insulate the oil and gas and chemical industries from challenge from residents to be coming up just as we are seeing the kind of damage that can result from poorly considered decisions," Babich said.