BATON ROUGE, La.
A Senate committee scuttled a bill Wednesday aimed at shuttering the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic that critics say would have hampered operations at all the state's law clinics.
The measure would have prohibited university law clinics that get state funding from suing individuals for damages, taking government agencies to court or making constitutional challenges.
Republican Sen. Robert Adley told the Senate Commerce Committee that Tulane accepts around $45 million in state money each year and yet runs a environmental law clinic that runs jobs out of the state by suing industry and government agencies.
Dan Borne, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, said his organization asked Adley to sponsor the bill after its members were angered by a clinic lawsuit that would require polluters around Baton Rouge to pay millions in fines for noncompliance with ozone standards.
The environmental clinic's "mission seems to be to attack business advancement and development" in Louisiana, Borne said.
Tulane President Scott Cowen made an impassioned plea against the bill, calling it a "serious black eye" to anyone who supports it. Cowen held the measure would disenfranchise some of the state's poorest citizens by forcing law clinics to shut their doors.
If Tulane were to decide that state funding was more important than its clinics, the school would be throwing "every indigent person in this state under the bus," Cowen said. He was addressing a committee room packed with academics, Tulane students and dozens of members of a Vietnamese community in New Orleans East who were represented by Tulane's environmental law clinic in a bid to stop a landfill in their area.
Cowen questioned why the legislature was considering such a bill while millions of gallons of oil are swirl around in the Gulf of Mexico from a monthlong spill.
"We are dealing with one of the most catastrophic environmental issues we've ever had in the history of the United States, and yet we're here arguing about cutting off access to people, to those who couldn't get it without the law clinic," Cowen said.
Tulane University uses the state funding it receives to run its hospital, conduct cancer research and draw in some of the state's brightest students, Cowen said. Tulane Law School only receives around $30,000 from the state out of a total budget of $30 million, said Stephen Griffin, interim dean of Tulane Law School, and none of that money is used to fund the school's environmental clinic.
Borne wondered why, in the time of a budget crunch, the state should be funding a private school that attacks the state.
"The logic of sending $47 million to Tulane when we're talking about shutting down Southern University in New Orleans doesn't work with me and shouldn't work with anyone in the legislature," Borne said.
Adley said he had met with leaders from Tulane, Loyola and LSU to hear their concerns about how the bill would impact issues from violence to housing. Adley said he was not interested in hurting those clinics and hoped to amend the bill to narrow its scope to environmental law clinics, but the committee never adopted those amendments.
Rev. Kevin Wildes, Loyola's president, called the bill "a direct affront to the rule of law in general" and said he opposed it even if it was amended to effect only Tulane's environmental clinic.
EnerVest vice president Bill Page testified in support of the bill, explaining how his company was sued by Tulane's clinic over mercury contamination around the company's natural gas wells in Monroe. Page said his company was forced to settle with Tulane and pay out $40,000 to cover the clinic's legal expenses.
Griffin said that in the 30 years Tulane has had clinics, no student lawyer had been found to be in violation of the rules.
Kim Boyle, president of the Louisiana State Bar Association, said her organization was against the bill because it would give legislators oversight of the state's law clinics when the Louisiana Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over regulating the practice of law.
The committee opted to shelve the bill without objection, likely killing it for the legislative session.
The bill represents just one prong in the Louisiana Chemical Association's strategy to rein in the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. The lobbying group has urged its 63 corporate members to stop recruiting Tulane University students and cease all donations to the school.