BATON ROUGE (CN) - A Louisiana Senate committee has shelved a bill that sought to close the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. The bill -- written at the behest of the chemical industry -- would have barred university law clinics with state funding from suing businesses for damages.
The bill also prohibited law clinics from taking government agencies to court, or challenging the Constitution. Critics said it would have stifled the operations of all law clinics in the state.
Republican state Senator Robert Adley told the state Senate's Commerce Committee that Tulane gets about $45 million in state money each year and runs an environmental law clinic that drives jobs out of the state by suing industry and government agencies.
The president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, Dan Borne, said his organization asked Adley to sponsor the bill after association members were angered by a lawsuit asking polluters around Baton Rouge to pay millions in fines for violating ozone standards.
The law clinic's "mission seems to be to attack business advancement and development" in Louisiana, Borne said.
The bill was just one prong in the Louisiana Chemical Association's attack on the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. The lobbying group also urged its 63 corporate members to stop recruiting Tulane University students and to stop donating money to Tulane.
Tulane President Scott Cowen questioned why the Legislature would even consider such a bill as a disastrous oil spill, possibly the largest in history, is ruining the Gulf of Mexico and continues unchecked.
"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.
Cowen called the bill a "serious black eye" to anyone who supports it, and said the measure would disenfranchise some of the state's poorest citizens by forcing law clinics to shut down.
If Tulane were to decide that state funding is more important than its law 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 neighborhood.
Tulane uses its state funding to run a hospital, conduct cancer research and recruit some of the state's brightest students, Cowen said.
Stephen Griffin, interim dean of Tulane Law School, said the law school receives only around $30,000 from the state out of its total budget of $30 million, and that none of the money is spent on the school's environmental clinic.
The Rev. Kevin Wildes, Loyola's president, called the bill "a direct affront to the rule of law in general." Wildes said he would oppose the bill even if it were amended to affect only Tulane's environmental law clinic.
Bill Page, vice president of the oil and gas company EnerVest, testified in support of the bill. He said his company was sued by Tulane's clinic over mercury contamination near the company's natural gas wells in Monroe, La. Page said his company was forced to settle with Tulane and pay $40,000 to cover the clinic's legal expenses.
Griffin said that in the 30 years Tulane has had clinics, no student attorney has ever been found to be in violation of the rules.
Kim Boyle, president of the Louisiana State Bar Association, said her organization opposed the bill because it would give legislators oversight of the state's law clinics, though the Louisiana Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over regulating the practice of law.
The committee decided to hold off on the bill without objection, probably killing it for this legislative session.
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