A Lame Threat By State Legislators

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Legislators wisely decided this week leave intact state funding of the University of Maryland School of Law’s environmental clinic. Public funds to the tune of $500,000 or more were in jeopardy after some leading lawmakers criticized law students being used to file a Clean Water Act lawsuit against a local poultry farm and Perdue Farms, the country’s third largest poultry company.

The legislature, with the House Appropriations Committee, chaired by local Delegate Norm Conway, leading the charge, had demanded the clinic turn over all of its client information for review or risk losing critical state funding that keeps it functioning and relevant. Certain lawmakers, including the shore’s Norm Conway and Senator Lowell Stoltzfus, spoke out against the clinic’s aspiring lawyers being used to fight poultry giant Purdue, which employs thousands on the shore and is an economic development force throughout the region.

The legislators and others said state resources should not be used to fight against agriculture in general and family farms in particular. Many took umbrage that a state-funded school was helping out the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Waterkeeper Alliance with its Clean Water lawsuit when it’s only supposed to get involved with cases involving non-profit causes that are unable to provide for its own legal fight.

Ultimately, after making national news, the controversial plan was reconsidered because lawmakers felt the clinic got their message, or threat whatever the case may be. Legislators feel the clinic can get involved in legal battles, but they need to be more careful deciding which battles they pick. With the funding freeze threat removed, the clinic has reportedly agreed to share with lawmakers certain client information, but the full extent of what will be turned over is unclear at this point.

This legislative power play was absurd and threatened the very nature of academic freedom. That being said, those local lawmakers actively pursuing a law clinic funding purge had to defend the poultry giant, the family farm and agriculture in general. It was an obvious political move and understandable to a degree. Nonetheless, that doesn’t make it right. From a political standpoint, it was a logical play. From a practical and logical stance, it was foolish.

What’s lost in this entire argument is no decision has been made in the ongoing legal battle involving the local poultry farm. A challenge has been filed, claiming the farm illegally stored waste on its farm and dug trenches to a ditch that ultimately leads to the Pocomoke River and subsequently the Chesapeake, and a judge will likely decide if wrongdoing was in fact committed. The legislators were out of line when they got involved in this case.

Polluting the waters of this state is illegal, and this case has merit, evidenced by the modest Maryland Department of Environment fine issued to the farm for improperly storing sludge material. The case will need to be hashed out through the proper legal channels. There are laws clearly outlining what farms can and cannot do.

The environmental law clinic has merely done what it was created to do — represent those who do not have means to take up an environmental fight, support current environmental litigation and specifically address the degradation of the Chesapeake Bay and enforce the requirements of the Clean Water Act. The courts will decide next whether any wrongdoing was committed.

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