A bill in the Louisiana Senate will make it much more difficult — critics say impossible — for student lawyers to represent poor people who have nowhere else to turn in their search for legal representation. Senate Bill 549 by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, prohibits law school clinics whose universities receive state funds from filing suits against any governmental agency, or seeking money damages, or raising state constitutional issues except in limited circumstances. The bill also puts the law clinics, which give law students courtroom experience under the supervision of licensed attorney-professors on behalf of indigent clients, under legislative oversight. Any violation of the law would result in forfeiture of all state funds to the law school's university.
"This bill would effectively shut down law clinics at all four law schools in Louisiana," says Loyola Law Dean Brian Bromberger. "We couldn't represent poor people in domestic matters, we couldn't adequately represent clients in criminal matters or most other matters. We currently have 870 open files in our clinic at Loyola, with 90 students and 10 professors working on behalf of indigent clients. It's all set up to assist people who are poor, so it's not taking any business away from the private bar."
Many suspect the bill is a move against the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic by the Louisiana Chemical Association, whose members sometimes lose environmental cases to the Tulane clinic.
Tommy Screen, director of the Loyola Institute of Politics and the university's chief lobbyist in Baton Rouge, says the bill raises constitutional questions because it creates legislative oversight of clinics, which is "the sole responsibility of the Louisiana Supreme Court." Screen adds that legislative oversight also could call into question attorney-client privileges.
As a matter of law, the Supreme Court oversees the practice of law and makes rules governing the circumstances under which law students can practice in Louisiana courts. The Supreme Court adopted a comprehensive — and restrictive — rule on student law clinics in 1999 after then-Gov. Mike Foster tried to clip the wings of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, which had successfully fought polluters in court.
Adley has said his bill is designed to prevent law schools that get state funds from turning around and suing the state — particularly in matters where they are seeking money damages. The bill is set for a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee this Wednesday, May 12. — Clancy DuBos