Political Interference in Clinical Programs: Lessons From The U.S. Experience


  • Peter Joy Washington University




This article reviews the history of political interference in clinical programs in the United States, considers the attacks on clinical programs in the context of attacks on other lawyers representing the poor or other marginalized clients, and draws lessons from the experience in the United States that may be helpful to clinical programs in other countries. With the spread of clinical teaching throughout the world, it is likely that law faculty teaching clinical courses in other countries may encounter the types of political interference with client and case selection experienced by their colleagues in the United States. Part I of this article examines the access to justice mission of clinical legal education in the United States and briefly traces the history and types of political interference in law school clinical programs. It also discusses the ethical obligations of lawyers to represent unpopular or controversial clients or causes, and considers how the attacks on clinical programs interfere with a lawyer’s ethical obligation to act independently of third-party interests. Part II examines the relationship between access to justice and the attacks on the major sources of public interest lawyers in the United States. Part II contends that access to the courts is a cornerstone principle for the rule of law, and access to the courts depends on having the assistance of a lawyer. Part II draws a connection between the political interference in clinical programs and other attacks on public interest lawyers.Part III analyzes the legacy of political interference on clinical programs. It discusses the effects of both the highly publicized attacks on clinical programs and the more frequent questions concerning clinical programs’ choices of clients and cases. It argues that the breadth of political interference in clinical programs in the United States indicates that any clinical program may be targeted even if the clinical faculty believe that they are taking non-controversial cases. Part III also questions whether political interference in clinical programs will be as great an issue in those countries that make legal assistance in civil cases more available to persons who are unable to afford to hire a lawyer than does the Unites States.The article concludes that law school clinical programs can model the highest ideals of the legal profession by evaluating potential cases on the legal merits and pedagogical value and not with a concern for whether or not the case or client may be controversial.