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(Posted by Bob Gallagher)
A group of legislators, following a script conceived by the public relations machine of Perdue and the Maryland Farm Bureau, have joined in Perdue’s unprecedented effort to derail an environmental lawsuit that has singular importance for the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The effort is unprecedented in the extent to which Perdue and its enablers are attempting to use the media and the political process to win a case that they have as yet been unable to win in court. Here is the story.
The Waterkeeper Alliance, working with the Assateague Coastkeeper, filed suit against Perdue and one of its contract chickens growers. The suit alleges that Perdue and the contractor, Hudson Farm, polluted the Pocomoke River with chicken waste in violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA).
Waterkeeper Alliance is a community supported organization that operates on a tight budget. It has thousands of supporters in Maryland. It makes extensive use of volunteers and public interest lawyers who work without charge. In this case, it is represented by the student lawyers of the University of Maryland School of Law’s highly regarded Environmental Law Clinic. The Alliance has worked with the Clinic in other cases to stop pollution of our rivers, to protect public health and to protect marine-related jobs and economic activity.
Represented by one of the biggest law firms in Baltimore, Perdue asked the court to dismiss the case as flawed at its inception. The distinguished senior judge hearing the case denied the motion. Perdue’s lawyers then unleashed a blizzard of paperwork on WKA and its lawyers apparently hoping to wear them down in the legal “discovery” process. That didn’t work either. It just made the young law students want to work harder.
Next Perdue filed a motion for summary judgment. That means judgment without a trial. They filed with the court thousands of pages of documents and transcripts of testimony of expert and other witnesses. The judge ruled that all they managed to prove was that the case was sufficiently complicated that it could only be decided after a trial.
From the beginning of the case, Perdue has been very uncomfortable with the idea that this case will be decided by an impartial, independent judge applying the rule of law. Recently, Perdue’s preference for trying the case in the court of public opinion became apparent. It launched a slick website called SAVEFARMFAMILIES. The website was created for Perdue by Levick Strategic Communications. Levick specializes in “crisis” and “high stakes” communications. Its website invites potential clients to hire it to “drive the narrative.” Levick has planted articles, spinning the facts to match Perdue’s objectives, in media across the Eastern Shore, rural Maryland and elsewhere.
On March 14, 2012, the Appropriations Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates held a hearing on House Bill 1349. The bill appears to be the latest sortie in the Perdue/Farm Bureau strategy. Introduced by an Eastern Shore delegate with the zeal of a carnival barker, the bill would punish the University of Maryland for the Law Clinic’s participation in the case by requiring the University to reimburse Hudson’s legal expenses, even if the Court finds Hudson guilty of violating pollution laws.
The delegate’s opening gambit in support of the bill was screening a video portraying the case as being about a rich, foreign organization on a subversive campaign to bankrupt family farmers. The video is expensively produced and professionally narrated.
The delegate used the video to incite a handful of other delegates to threaten the Clinic with dire consequences if it does not withdraw from the case. The website and video have created a backlash of public opinion against the Alliance and the Clinic in some segments of the farm community.
One of the reasons that, in a democracy, we entrust resolution of significant disputes to an independent judiciary applying an objective rule of law is that judges are trained and ethically bound to seek the truth and apply the law fairly. The court of public opinion has no such constraints. In the court of public opinion, the person with the most money often wins.
One of the most insidious aspects of the Perdue/Farm Bureau strategy is that it also entices our legislators to make their own judgment on the case based on the “facts” presented by Perdue’s public relations machine. The video, like the website, is a layer cake of deceit – one layer of sticky sweet lies upon another. Many of the lies are apparent from a review of readily available public documents. But, the point of this piece is not to point out each lie. The truth is for the court to determine.
It is apparent from Perdue’s actions that it desperately wants to avoid a court ruling in the case. That might be because a ruling against Perdue could make Perdue responsible not only for its waste from the Hudson farm but from its many other contract growers.
Trial in the case will proceed if the case cannot be settled in mediation. The Law Clinic has made it clear that, even in the face of intense criticism, its fledgling lawyers will continue to meet their ethical responsibility to represent their clients to the best of their ability.
It won’t surprise many readers that a number of the people involved in the effort to stop the Perdue litigation are also behind the effort to delegitimize proposals to reign in sprawl and pollution from septic systems as a “war on rural Maryland.” I suggest that some of those people could learn something about civic duty from the law students.