BATON ROUGE - A controversial "law clinic" bill failed in committee late last week, but that won't stop the state legislator who proposed it.
Sen. Robert Adley (R-Benton) said the measure would have curbed Tulane University's Environmental Law Clinic from filing lawsuits.
"This issue is about ethics and extorting money from companies," Adley said in an interview last week.
He described the story of a business owner who spoke during the committee hearing and alleged that Tulane University's law clinic filed a costly suit against him even though he hadn't broken the law.
"Tulane is the only environmental law clinic in the state and it is apparently abusing and practicing barratry," Adley said.
"In the case of this citizen, different sets of students – kids – were sent to his office to drag out a lawsuit that cost him $200,000. He didn't violate the law and his work was approved under the law, but at the end of the day Tulane basically said the lawsuit isn't going to go away unless you pay Tulane $40,000. Tulane called it legal fees."
The lawsuit Adley referred to is a 2006 federal case the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic filed against EnerVest Operating, LLC, a company that controls close to 4,000 gas wells in Northern Louisiana.
According to testimony by EnerVest Vice President and Portfolio Manager Bill Page, the company was sued for mercury contamination after its officials contacted the Louisiana Department of Quality to come up with an amenable plan for getting rid of the pollution.
Page said company officials realized they had acquired polluting mercury meters when it bought the wells and was proactive about getting rid of them. He also pointed out that there were no laws about mercury meters in Louisiana, so the company was not doing any wrong.
Both sides of the argument agree that the university's law clinic has a lot to do with Adley's proposal.
The business community and Adley argue that the law clinic is using environmental issues as a means to an end.
Supporters of the law clinic say the ability to sue, make constitutional arguments and challenge the government is necessary to protect Louisianans.
"In Louisiana, students working for clients through law school clinics help them obtain housing, a critical and fundamental need in ongoing struggles to recover from Hurricane Katrina," reads a May 12 statement by the American Bar Association's president Carolyn B. Lamm.
"They help victims of domestic violence escape abuse and rebuild their lives. They represent minors confronting difficult family problems. And they work to preserve clean air and water, an especially relevant concern given the events now taking place just off the shores of coastal Louisiana."
Adley takes offense to arguments that imply it is improper to target the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic when the BP oil leak continues to pump pollutants in the Gulf of Mexico more than a month after the disaster began.
"If there were any substance to that argument and Tulane and these law clinics were doing what they claim to do, there would not be an oil spill in the first place," Adley said.
"It's absurd to make that argument. The second point is in Louisiana we do have regulators who oversee that. That oil spill happened in federal waters. You better get to Washington to get that answer. That has nothing to do with our law clinics. That argument is a good way to emotionally stir people up, but it's not factual."
Another motivator for Adley's push for law clinic reform has to do with the impact he says it is having on the state's economy. He says law clinics have run several companies out of the state by filing suit against companies permit process.
Adley claims that law clinics from schools that receive money from the state should not be able to then sue the state or government regulatory arms and receive even more money as a result.
"I believe based on what I've seen, that school has serious problems in their law clinic; they are abusing the public and are costing this state thousands of jobs," Adley aid.
"They actually said in committee that they are 'economic development' because 80 percent of their students are from out of state. So they said to us 'we recruit people from out of state to teach them how to sue businesses and government and taxpayers' – and they call that economic development and claim it is a billion dollar a year industry.
"The evidence is becoming glaringly clear that there's a great deal of abuse in that environmental law clinic to do nothing more than get money for the school, not to protect the poor people."
Although Adley says law clinics like Tulane's run business – and jobs – away from the state, opponents of his proposal argue that, if passed, the legislation would negatively impact Louisianans who can't afford to pay for a lawyer.
"The American Bar Association commends the students in Louisiana's law schools who stand ready to help people who have no other recourse, and urges the legislature to welcome their contribution to making legal assistance available to the state's neediest citizens, not thwart those students working to solve people's problems," Lamm's statement says.
Adley argues against the notion that his law clinic bill would deprive the people of Louisiana from getting free legal assistance. Instead, he says Tulane is the one that is taking advantage of low-income people in the state.
"The truth is Tulane is like the man hiding behind the woman's dress," Adley said. "They have put poor people in front of them as a shield to the shakedown. In the case I described earlier, there was not one indigent, poor person listed in the lawsuit. They were all major entities with large amounts of assets – each and every one of them. Nothing that I intend to do will take away the right for poor and indigent people to continue to be sure that they are represented."
Adley said he unearthed an even larger problem with the legal system in the process of introducing his law clinic bill.
"I can tell you in the last 24 months I have personally seen abuse by licensed attorneys who have operated with conflicts of interest and have cost taxpayers millions of dollars," he said.
"I've seen ethics violations by judges who receive a slap on the wrist and I've seen this issue with Tulane where the judges were contacted and they say 'oh, we have nothing to with that.'
"We are going to have to do something to ensure the validity of the statement that just because you are a lawyer, it doesn't put you above the law and it doesn't make you any better than any other citizen."