Government & Politics
 

Bill to punish law clinics could unexpectedly hit medical care

A bill to stop university law clinics in Louisiana from filing lawsuits and seeking monetary damages against businesses and government agencies, would financially penalize not only university violators, but also residents seeking health services if the bill passes.

The bill by state Sen. Bill Adley, R-Benton, is aimed at the environmental law clinic at Tulane University according to the Louisiana Chemical Association, a supporter of the bill. The Tulane clinic has, in recent months, been actively involved in court judgments against the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans, Murphy Oil USA, Inc., and Entergy Louisiana.

But the Tulane law clinic doesn’t actually use state money. Interim Law School Dean Stephen Griffin said the law school as a whole gets only about $60,000 in state money, out of a budget of roughly $30 million.

“We’re funded by private tuition for the most part,” Griffin said. “But that doesn’t change the impact of this bill because it’s aimed at funding universities — so it says the university won’t be funded.”

The bill reads, “A violation of this Section shall result in the forfeiture of all state funding to the university for that fiscal year.”

The bulk of state money for Tulane University goes toward cancer research and for physicians providing mental-health and general healthcare services for state hospitals, said Sharon Courtney, vice president of government affairs for Tulane.

Given that the legislation’s wording doesn’t make a distinction in the kind of state money Adley’s bill would strip, this kind of penalty could lead to a reduction in healthcare services in New Orleans at a time when residents are still recovering from the levee disasters.

The university as a whole gets less than $1 million from the state toward its overall budget of about $715 million.

“While the money given directly to the university from the state is relatively small, the danger is that citizens will end up losing important services,” Courtney said.

If the law clinic continues its work, it threatens parts of the university that would lose that state funding. Tulane is standing by its clinic, though, which provides free legal representation often on behalf of low-income individuals and environmental advocates.

“Our position is that the bill is bad and should be killed because it will hamper the good work of our law clinics and those at law schools around the state,” Tulane spokesman Michael Strecker said.

“As far as I can tell, Loyola and Southern Universities would be as severely affected as we would be,” Strecker said. “We are coordinating with all the law schools because all of their law clinics would be affected.”

The bill takes away real-world experience students can earn, said Samantha Kennedy, a graduating Loyola Law School student who has tried two cases with its law clinic.

“The law clinic is the only place where you really learn how to be a lawyer,” Kennedy said. “Without it, everything is just theoretical. Also, clients in criminal cases tend to prefer law clinics over public defenders because we’ll put in the hundreds of hours necessary to research the case, and the quality of representation is not split by a heavy caseload or based on their ability to pay.”

Adley did not return calls seeking comment.

Adley has yet to introduce the bill to the state’s commerce committee for review.

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  • Jeff

    This is such a crock. I’m not a lawyer, but how can legislation preempt a lawsuit from being brought by a plaintiff? Or is the bill just trying to prevent funding from going to University law clinics?

    Adley’s such a panderer.

  • Charles Zerner

    As the Tulane University President explained in a public letter, and those who are a bit closer to this know well, the purpose of the bill is to stop the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, which goes after big environmental polluters. The Clinic isn’t subject to pressures that work against law firms– a big oil company’s threats to never hire a law firm if they continue with a lawsuit are serious and can stop a law firm in its tracks. But the Clinic is lucky– it doesn’t need to care about that. The lawyers (students) work for free– It can defend who it wants and go after whoever it wants. It can cause real headaches to giant corporations. And it has. I would love to hear the legislature come up with a good reason to destroy a clinic offering free legal services to the community. Environmental Polluters don’t want to pay Louisiana for the damage they cause here.

    The idea that the Louisiana Legislature wants to protect Big Oil at a time like this is beyond disgusting.