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Defending Mother Nature in Court
In California's fertile Salinas Valley, water loaded with fertilizers and pesticides flows off agricultural fields into a network of ditches and drains. The untreated runoff seeps into groundwater and feeds into Elkhorn Slough and Monterey Bay, harming drinking water and the wildlife-rich watershed. But not for long, if students in the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford successfully represent their pro bono client, Monterey Coastkeeper.
"We're trying to create incentives for the Monterey County Water Resources Agency to treat the runoff. They wouldn't do it on their own, so we brought suit," says clinic student Brigid DeCoursey, a third-year law student and an editor-in-chief of the Stanford Environmental Law Journal.
She and fellow students, working in a clinic space designed like a law office, have been pulling out thick books, brainstorming legal claims, writing memos late into the evening, and presenting arguments in court.
Under the guidance of Stanford faculty and the clinic's staff attorneys, the students practice real law for real nonprofit clients. Starting in their second year, students can join the clinic for one quarter, full-time, with no other classes.
The environmental clinic is part of the law school's Mills Legal Clinic, in which students gain hands-on, practical experience in 10 areas of interest, including corporate and transactional work and criminal law.
"From the students' point of view, they get a great experience," says Bill Landreth, '69, who heard about being a clinic student firsthand from his son, Peter, '98, JD '04. (Peter now works at GenOn Energy Inc. as director of California environmental policy and associate general counsel.)
A major gift from the Landreth family—which includes Jeanne, '69, and daughter Kerry, '95, a managing director at Goldman Sachs—will help the clinic expand to meet the increasing demand for its services. With additional staff, the clinic can train more students, act for more clients on precedent-setting cases, and collaborate more often with campus colleagues on interdisciplinary projects.
Bill and Jeanne Landreth are longtime Stanford volunteers who backed the Initiative on the Environment and Sustainability when it launched in 2004. Bill says, "I feel a strong commitment to do more" to nurture innovative environmental problem solving. He spent his early years hiking and fishing in the Sierra Nevada, and became a wilderness guide before a career at Goldman Sachs.
The retired couple lives in Carmel, on the edge of Monterey Bay.
The clinic's philosophy is to seek solutions, and litigation is just one of many tools. For example, the clinic will consult with scientists on low-cost solutions to treat runoff, such as S-shaped channels to slow water flow and native plants that filter chemicals. Professors and staff attorneys also coach the students on negotiating agreements and creating good policy.
The Monterey County case concentrates on a small geographic area, but it's a common scenario. Federal law currently allows farms to discharge wastewater without a permit. And the county water agency argues that it doesn’t need to treat the wastewater moving through its drainage system because it passively accepts the wastewater from the fields.
Clinic students disagreed in a well-researched complaint, and a judge affirmed that the case could go to trial. Like most clinic students, DeCoursey felt attached to the case she worked on in her second year, and has come back in her third year part time to help on the discovery phase of the case.
"It's been really great to see the project from its infancy," she says. "It's a very exciting process to be involved in."