The University of Maryland would have to pay as much as $500,000 toward the legal expenses incurred by a farm’s owners while fighting a lawsuit brought by the school’s environmental law clinic under legislation proposed by a Republican state lawmaker.

State Sen. Richard Colburn introduced the bill on Feb. 13. It was the latest development in a three-year battle between the environmental law clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and Republican lawmakers over the appropriate role of publicly funded clinics.

The clinic represents the Waterkeeper Alliance in the lawsuit against poultry giant Perdue Farms Inc. and a Hudson Farm, a local, family-owned chicken operation that supplies the company. The lawmakers fear that suit and others like it hurt the local economy and shouldn’t be backed with public money.

Colburn’s measure simply would require the university “to pay an amount not to exceed $500,000 to reimburse the Hudson Farm for legal expenses incurred as a defendant.”

Clinic supporters argue that legislative intervention would violate the academic freedom and independence that law clinics must retain to provide proper counsel to clients and train students in courtroom skills. The Baltimore law school operates a number of such clinics targeting matters including immigration and intellectual property.

The two sides have been sparring since 2010, when the Waterkeeper Alliance suit was filed. The complaint claimed that the Hudson Farm is illegally discharging pollution into several waterways.

Shortly after the complaint was filed, lawmakers threatened to cut $250,000 from the university’s budget unless every one of the law school’s clinics turned over information about the clients they had represented during the previous five years. The Maryland House of Delegates rejected the proposed budget cut, but the clinic’s role in the case has continued to rankle some lawmakers.

In November, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley wrote a letter to Maryland law dean Phoebe Haddon calling the clinic’s involvement an “ongoing injustice.” The cost of defending the case could force the farm’s owners into bankruptcy and cost them their land, he wrote.

Colburn echoed O’Malley’s concerns this week, saying that he wants to draw more attention to “the legal injustice in this case.”

“As middle-income farmers, the Hudsons are unable to pay the exorbitantly high legal fees associated with the process, and several fund-raisers have been established to assist the family,” Colburn said. “While the equitable solution seems to be that the law school should simply provide legal counsel for both sides of the case, the political ramifications of doing so are not in line with the agenda of most clinics.”

State Delegate Patrick McDonough on Feb. 8 introduced a bill that would limit any law clinics housed at the university from representing non-indigent plaintiffs in litigation; the language would cover cases like the Waterkeeper Alliance action. A hearing on the measure was scheduled for Feb. 21.

Law school officials declined to comment on the proposed bills. The Waterkeeper Alliance’s suit is scheduled to go to trial in April.

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