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Gov. O’Malley’s misguided missive

By Editorial,

MARYLAND GOV. Martin O’Malley (D) fired off a letter to the dean of the University of Maryland School of Law, complaining of “a state-sponsored injustice and a misuse of taxpayer resources.”

The governor was not seeking the law school’s help. Instead he was pointing a finger of blame.

Mr. O’Malley’s Nov. 14 missive was a misguided protest against the school’s environmental law clinic and its involvement in a lawsuit against Perdue Inc. and Alan and Kristin Hudson Farm, a Maryland-based operation that works for Perdue.

The law clinic represents Waterkeeper Alliance Inc., an environmental advocacy group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.; the alliance filed suit in federal court, claiming that the poultry producers violated the Clean Water Act by allowing runoff to pollute the Pocomoke River and its tributaries.

The businesses contest the charges; the Hudsons, in particular, have found a staunch ally in a governor who has generally earned praise from environmental groups. “This is a matter of fundamental fairness and the ongoing and significant injustice and economic harm being done to a decent, hard-working Maryland family by the continued pursuit of this very questionable suit,” the governor wrote in the letter to law school dean Phoebe A. Haddon. Mr. O’Malley noted that the Maryland Department of the Environment found only a minor violation and fined the farm $4,000; he also asserted that the Hudsons “now face possible bankruptcy and loss of their land” because of legal fees. The Hudsons are beneficiaries of a makeshift legal defense fund that claims Perdue Farms, the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association and the National Chicken Council as contributors. If they win in federal court, they may ask the judge to order Waterkeeper to pay their legal fees.

In a Nov. 17 response, Ms. Haddon argued that the clinic had “good grounds” for filing the suit and that Mr. O’Malley’s letter contained several inaccuracies.

Once the dispute between the governor and the law school became public, other Maryland politicians jumped on the bandwagon; Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Baltimore County) told the Baltimore Sun that he plans to introduce legislation to prohibit publicly funded university law clinics from suing private citizens or businesses.

This would not be the first time that lawmakers embraced wrongheaded means to protest this lawsuit. In 2010, state senators proposed to cut some $500,000 from the university’s budget because of the environmental law clinic’s work. They backed off but not before sending a message that such clinics should think twice before fulfilling their missions and taking on corporate interests or lawmaker favorites.

Mr. O’Malley did not rely on these heavy-handed tactics; he embraced the notion that law schools “must retain the academic freedom to operate their clinics in the manner they think will best achieve their goals.” Mr. O’Malley would have better served this cause by refraining from sending a letter that threatens to chill the robust exercise of that freedom.

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