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Law clinic at Pitt feeling pressure

Controversy swirls over environmental clients

Wednesday, October 17, 2001

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The future of the University of Pittsburgh's Environmental Law Clinic is in jeopardy because of continuing pressure from state legislators, business leaders and at least one judge upset about the clinic representing opponents of the Mon-Fayette Expressway and timbering in the Allegheny National Forest.

The latest blow occurred Friday when Pitt informed clinic director Thomas Buchele that it has assessed the clinic $62,559 for a year's worth of administrative and overhead costs.

Since the clinic's annual budget is about $102,000 -- entirely from Heinz Endowment grants and other private funding sources -- and the university has restricted the clinic from seeking additional endowment funding until it agrees not to take on controversial cases, the assessment will cause the clinic to go bankrupt within 18 months, Buchele said.

"The school is claiming that [the assessment] is because of language in the state budget, but that was passed in June and since then we had been told there was nothing to worry about because any administrative costs were incidental," he said.

"This is a complete change in the school's position, so it's difficult to think that this is a coincidence given all the recent talk about the Mon-Fayette Expressway case."

In the past few months, the clinic has come under heavy criticism in letters to Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and elected officials from Joseph Kirk, executive director of the Mon Valley Progress Council, for agreeing to represent Citizens Against New Toll Roads, a group opposed to the expressway project.

The assessment was levied shortly after the Sept. 24 meeting of the law school's independent review and advisory group, the Board of Visitors. During that meeting, state Supreme Court Justice Ralph J. Cappy, the board chairman, criticized the clinic's operation and clients.

William Luneburg, director of Pitt's environmental law program, said much of the public and board criticism reflects misunderstandings about the clinic's funding, political independence and academic freedom issues.

"Tom and the clinic are providing legal advice to a group that can't afford to hire legal representation," Luneburg said. "What kind of example would it be to students if we give in to these pressures at the same time we're teaching them that everyone deserves representation in court."

The clinic, which was started last year to give law students practical experience on environmental cases, has also been criticized for representing the Allegheny Defense Project, a group opposed to logging in the Allegheny National Forest. Because of that criticism, the clinic dropped its representation of the group and Buchele took on the case privately.

The university said yesterday it is required to charge the clinic because state legislators in June added a line to the budget bill that prohibits Pitt from spending tax money on personnel or operations of the law clinic.

"We have a line item requirement this year for the first time and we are abiding by it," said Robert Hill, a university spokesman. "Academic freedom is not an issue here. What is an issue is following the law."

The Pitt law school also operates a family legal support clinic, which includes a health law clinic and an elder law clinic, but those are generally not controversial, were not singled out by the Legislature for budgetary scrutiny and are not required to pay the university for administrative and overhead costs.

The university gets about 20 percent of its budget from the state, and that percentage is even lower in the law school, where tuition money provides the bulk of the budget.

Although Hill said the $62,000 assessment levied on the law clinic represents only that percentage of the clinic's costs equal to tax money support, Luneburg said he was told the assessment was for 100 percent of the clinic's administrative and overhead costs.

If the assessment is proportional to Pitt's tax dollar support, it would mean that the clinic's annual indirect administrative costs would total more than $300,000, a figure Luneburg said "defies logic."

Peter M. Shane, former dean of the Pitt law school from 1994 through 1998 and now a visiting professor of law and public policy at the H.J. Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University, said the Legislature's line item veto of environmental clinic funds shouldn't be a fatal blow.

"It is the Legislature's prerogative to determine that no state funds be used to support an environmental law clinic," Shane said. "If, however, the law school budgets the environmental law clinic as it does the school's other programs, then there should be a way of fulfilling the state's mandate without putting undue or inappropriate pressure on the environmental law program."

Caren Glotfelty, director of environmental programs at the Heinz Endowments, which has provided most of the funding for the clinic, said it should operate free of political interference.

"That kind of action on funding by the Legislature was very troubling," she said. "We want the law clinic to exist and to fulfill the goals we expected when we gave the capital endowment to Pitt.

"We want the faculty to feel comfortable and be able to do its job. I just don't know how this will be resolved right now, but we'll be talking to the university."

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