March 31, 2010

Big Chicken Plays Chicken Little in Maryland While Assaulting Academic Freedom and Access to Justice in the Meantime

The proverbial poop has hit the fan in Maryland this month after two environmental groups – the Assateague Coastal Trust and the Waterkeeper Alliance – sued Perdue Farms, Inc. and Hudson Farm, a Perdue-contract chicken factory farm in Berlin, Maryland, for violating the Clean Water Act. Water sampling from ditches next to Hudson Farm found high levels of fecal coliform and E. coli. Phosphorus and nitrogen – nutrients killing the Chesapeake Bay – were also found.

The two environmental groups are represented by pro bono student attorneys at the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law (where I was once a student; I should also note that CPR President Rena Steinzor is the former director of the clinic). The groundbreaking suit not only takes on a chicken farmer, it also targets Perdue – which contracts with farms throughout the state to raise the chickens it processes.

Perdue’s response? To cry "fowl," pardon the pun, of course. Instead of just fighting the lawsuit fair and square in court, Perdue also took its ruffled feathers to the Maryland General Assembly, pressing it to muzzle the student attorneys and send a message to the clinic. Perdue’s claims that the sky is falling have apparently worked. Last week, budget language approved by the Maryland Senate included a provision ordering the law school to produce a list of the clients it has represented over the last two years or lose funding – $250,000 in one version, $750,000 in another. Students take note: this is what happens when you take on the nation’s third-largest poultry company with $4.6 billion in sales annually.

Here’s why what Perdue wants to happen is so bad. First, most local environmental groups can’t afford legal representation – clinics like the one at Maryland do a tremendous service by providing such groups access to justice, because they provide their services for free. And students get extraordinary legal experience along the way. Chilling the clinic at Maryland could have the effect of blocking future suits that seek to enforce the law because environmental groups will have no attorneys to turn to when they need to take action. And if environmental clinics around the country aren’t watching Maryland’s situation carefully, they should be.

Second, academic freedom is at stake here: is the Maryland General Assembly really going to tell its law school what cases have merit and don’t?

Third, legal ethics are at stake here: does the Maryland General Assembly really think it’s a good idea to require attorneys to make a list of clients publically available?

Fourth, current agricultural practices are killing the Chesapeake Bay – and everyone knows it. Enforcement needs to be strengthened against all polluters, of course, but agricultural polluters are notoriously under-regulated and rarely face enforcement actions. Meanwhile, agriculture is the largest source of nutrient pollution in the Bay, contributing 38 percent of the nitrogen and 45 percent of the phosphorous. Nationally, cattle, chickens, and hogs create more than 500 million tons of manure annually – three times more than the sanitary waste produced by people. Something needs to be done.

C’mon, Perdue – you’ve been sued by student attorneys and two environmental groups. If it’s a frivolous lawsuit, you’ll win. So what are you? Chicken.

Big Chicken.

Shana Campbell Jones, Consultant to CPR, Center for Progressive Reform. Bio.

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