In theory, we have a legal system in the United States that provides for equality before the law. In practice, to get your rights enforced through the legal system requires a good lawyer. And in practice, while large companies and rich individuals can afford good lawyers, normal people can’t. Consequently, the legal system works much better for rich people and firms controlled by rich people than it does for other people. Law school clinics, at which bright lawyers-in-training take on issues that would otherwise go unaddressed are an effort to counteract this.
On Friday, lawmakers here debated a measure to cut money for the University of Maryland’s law clinic if it does not provide details to the legislature about its clients, finances and cases.
The measure, which is likely to be sent to the governor this week, comes in response to a suit filed in March by students accusing one of the state’s largest employers, Perdue, of environmental violations — the first effort in the state to hold a poultry company accountable for the environmental impact of its chicken suppliers.
Law clinics at other universities — from New Jersey to Michigan to Louisiana — are facing similar challenges. And legal experts say the attacks jeopardize the work of the clinics, which not only train students with hands-on courtroom experience at more than 200 law schools but also have taken on more cases against companies and government agencies in recent years.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve increasingly heard advocates of “free market” policies try to convince me that their approach is in fact the solution to the problem of the domination of the government by the wealthy and powerful. Their pitch is that if instead of having public sector agencies that try to do things, we just had a “free market” environment, that corporate domination of the political system wouldn’t matter. I think stories like this one underscore the fallacy of that approach. The political system is necessarily everywhere you look determining, among other things, who does and doesn’t have access to the legal system to enforce their rights.
It’s either possible, over the long run, to have a democracy in which practice approximates the ideals of political and legal equality or else it isn’t. If the political power can be mustered to create legislation that serves the public interest, then it can. If it can’t, then simply trying to retreat outside the arena of the “political” will fail as the powerful extend their domination into new arenas.