Profs. Kuehn and Joy Celebrate New Jersey Supreme Court Ruling on Clinical Legal Education

The New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling in the case Sussex Commons Associates, LLC v. Rutgers University is a victory not only for legal education, but also for two Washington University School of Law professors.

Robert Kuehn, associate dean for clinical education, professor of law, and co-director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic, and Peter Joy, the Henry Hitchcock Professor of Law and director of the Criminal Justice Clinic, have been working for years to protect academic freedom for service-learning programs like law school clinics. In various articles, amicus briefs, and other forums, Kuehn and Joy have argued that legal clinics must be allowed to do their work without interference, even when that work challenges big business, state legislators, or other powerful interests.

Sussex Commons Associates, LLC v. Rutgers University regarded a real estate developer who wanted to build a shopping mall. The Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic agreed to represent opponents of the proposed development. Sussex Commons, wanting access to the clinic’s internal documents and other information, filed a public records request with the state of New Jersey, but Rutgers—a public university—refused to turn over the documents.

The developer sued and lost, but then appealed the ruling. When the appellate court reversed the original decision, Rutgers went to the state supreme court. In reversing the appellate court’s ruling, the state supreme court first cited Kuehn and Joy’s 2003 article in the Fordham Law Review on clinical interference, and next cited a 2012 clinical survey report from the Center for the Study of Applied Legal Education (CSALE) by Kuehn and David Santacroce at the University of Michigan. In all three court cases, Kuehn and Joy also filed amicus briefs on behalf of legal education organizations arguing that law clinics should enjoy the same confidentiality privileges held by private law firms. 

“This is a significant victory not just for Rutgers, but for legal education, as the opinion highlights the importance of clinics in contemporary legal education and the need to allow clients unfettered access to their services,” says Kuehn, a former president of the Clinical Legal Education Association.

 Joy agrees. “This is a victory for access to the courts for those unable to afford lawyers.  Those interfering with clinical students and faculty representing clients are trying to subvert the normal course of justice by making it burdensome for clinics to represent those in need,” he says.

 “We are delighted with the supreme court’s decision,” adds Jon C. Dubin, Rutgers University associate dean for Clinical Education, professor of law, and Alfred C. Clapp Public Service Scholar. “A determination that the Rutgers clinical programs’ private clients’ case files were open public records would have seriously and uniquely disadvantaged our program and its clients.”

Dubin also has high praise for Kuehn and Joy: “Their amicus brief underscored the threats to academic freedom from a contrary ruling—points which found resonance in the chief justice’s majority opinion,” he says.

The American Bar Association requires accredited law schools to offer hands-on, practical experience for students as a critical part of their education. Such law clinics often represent clients who don’t have the resources to hire legal counsel. According to the CSALE, legal clinics provide about two million hours of pro bono work annually.

Washington University’s Clinical Education Program comprises fifteen different courses, including the Appellate Clinic, the Civil Justice Clinic, the Criminal Justice Clinic, the Intellectual Property & Nonprofit Organizations Clinic, and the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic. Click here to learn more. For a PDF of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling in Sussex Commons Associates, LLC v. Rutgers University, click here.

By Timothy J. Fox