Civil Rights and Environmental Coalition Challenges Rule Curbing Law Clinics

Academe, July/August 1999 | Go to article overview

Civil Rights and Environmental Coalition Challenges Rule Curbing Law Clinics


A COALITION OF CIVIL RIGHTS AND environmental groups has joined a Tulane University professor in filing suit against the Louisiana state supreme court over a rule restricting law clinics. Rules of practice written by the state's high court govern law clinics in Louisiana, through which third-year law students gain hands-on experience by assisting low- and moderate-income residents with legal claims.

In recent years, law professor Robert Kuehn and his colleagues at the environmental law clinic run by Tulane University have rankled some state political and business moguls by representing local citizens in legal challenges to large chemical manufacturers. The clinic has contended that petrochemical facilities set up shop in predominantly black and poor areas and contaminate surrounding communities with toxic discharges. Such claims prompted Louisiana's governor, Mike Foster, to denounce the professors and law students at the Tulane clinic as "a bunch of outlaws trying to shut everything down." He has also urged Tulane alumni to protest the university's funding of the law clinic, and he has cast doubt on continuance of the university's tax breaks from the state.

Amid such calls from political leaders, the court revised its rule on law clinics in June 1998. The new policy reduces the income threshold of potential clients and forbids clinics from soliciting clients. Citizens must now have incomes below a poverty-level ceiling to secure the clinic's services. An organization seeking to qualify as a client of the clinic would have to quiz its entire membership to ensure that a majority falls below the income threshold.

The suit against the revised rule, filed in federal district court in April, comes amid growing faculty opposition to the policy.

Risk to academic freedom is among the reasons plaintiffs cite in seeking to block the rule. …

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