Md. legislature scrutinizing law clinic over chicken farm suit

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post staff writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

In Maryland, messing with Big Chicken can bring big trouble.

The latest case study is playing out in Annapolis, where the state Senate wants to impose greater scrutiny on the University of Maryland's environmental law clinic. The reason? Apparently, it's the law clinic's pro bono work for an environmental group that is suing an Eastern Shore chicken farmer and the poultry giant Perdue Farms.

In that lawsuit, filed this month, the Assateague Coastal Trust alleges that polluted runoff from the farm, where the Hudson family raises chickens for Perdue, was fouling the Pocomoke River. Waste from the farm could flow to the Chesapeake Bay, carrying bacteria and fuel for oxygen-sucking algae blooms, the suit says.

A few weeks later, legislators proposed taking away hundreds of thousands of dollars from the law school's budget unless the clinic spelled out exactly whom it has represented and how much it has spent on each client.

The Senate passed compromise language, proposed by Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), which applies only to the law clinic's environmental arm. It requires the environmental law clinic to spell out whom it represented in the past two years and some details of what it spent. If not, the school would lose $250,000.

"It's better than it was, but it's still a pretty big abridgement of academic freedom," Frosh said Friday. He said the language amounted to a threat: "If you guys are getting involved in issues that we don't like, or you're bothering people that we do like, we want you to shut up."

The House Appropriations Committee on Friday night approved a measure that would withhold $500,000 from the law school pending completion of the law clinic report, which would be due to the legislature Aug. 1.

Rena Steinzor, a law professor at Maryland and former director of the environmental law clinic, said the legislation was an attempt to bully the clinic. "It's not acceptable, because it is an effort to chill and intimidate us for taking cases that cause trouble in Annapolis."

In a phone interview, Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset), a driving force behind the measure, said he was concerned that law students working without charge could overwhelm small chicken farms, which have to pay their legal costs. "We, as taxpayers, are supporting the law school, which . . . turns these students loose on businesses that are being very productive," said Stoltzfus, who dismissed the idea that he intended to intimidate the law clinic.

At Perdue, spokesman Luis Luna said Eastern Shore legislators raised objections about the clinic after a talk with the company chairman, Jim Perdue.

Perdue's message to the legislators, Luna said, was that the kind of lawsuit filed against the farm was "the biggest threat to agriculture of the past 50 years."

Also Friday, the Maryland Department of the Environment announced a $4,000 fine against the farm in question. The department said the farm had placed sewage sludge -- treated human waste used as fertilizer -- too close to a drainage ditch, where it might contaminate runoff.

But the department said its investigation did not turn up "strong evidence conclusively linking bacterial pollution" in waters near the farm.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company