Life Goes on at Environmental Law Clinic

April 1, 1999

Nick Martinello

After 10 years serving as the director of Tulane Law School's Environmental Law Clinic, Robert Kuehn is moving on. Kuehn, whose resignation is effective at the end of this academic year, said he expects to be teaching at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis next fall and to begin an additional appointment at the University of Michigan School of Law in spring 2000.

Law school officials said that while Kuehn has been an exemplary director, the process to find his replacement is already under way, and they expect no change in the clinic's mission or methods.

"While all clinics are always changing, we don't anticipate any dramatic changes for the Environmental Law Clinic," said Ed Sherman, dean of Tulane Law School. "Our intention is to make the clinic even stronger," said Oliver Houck, law professor and director of the school's environmental law program. "I am confident that this operation will go forward without slack."

Kuehn's announced resignation came after a particularly turbulent year for the clinic, which received harsh criticism from Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster and a number of business organizations. Much of it was directed at the clinic for its role in assisting the residents of Convent, La., in their successful bid to prohibit the Shintech petrochemical plant from developing in their community.

In addition, last summer the Louisiana Supreme Court limited the authority of state law school clinics by restricting the type of clients they could represent. Kuehn said he was "somewhat troubled" by a published report that his departure from the clinic was a direct result of controversy surrounding Shintech or the court ruling.

Citing a "combination of personal and professional reasons," Kuehn said he was "within days" of informing Dean Sherman of his decision when the Shintech controversy heated up last year.

"I thought it would not be right to the law school, the clients up in Convent or our law students to announce my resignation then," said Kuehn. "I thought it would send the wrong signal to the governor and other misguided individuals who had been beating up on Tulane."

Houck said he believes a majority of the members of the Supreme Court know "the court made a mistake" in establishing tighter restrictions on whom the state's law school clinics can represent. "Over time," said Houck, "they will want to find a way to relax the rule. In the meantime, we have enough cases on file to keep us going for the next couple of years."

Kuehn, who led the clinic in becoming an aggressive advocate for individuals, communities and environmental organizations in Louisiana, said the last 10 years had taught him two lessons.

"I learned how important a clinical education is to law students," he said. "Without clinics, students have no opportunity to practice and perfect the skills they are expected to perform immediately upon graduation." Kuehn said he also learned to appreciate the role of citizen participation in regulatory and judicial processes. "What's on paper doesn't mean a whole lot if the people who are affected don't have the ability to enforce those laws and if the agencies created to protect them don't do their duties," he said.

Sherman said that Kuehn is "an excellent attorney who helped create an environmental law clinic that has had a significant impact on the protection of the environment of our state. Most importantly, the clinic has been an outstanding pedagogical vehicle for teaching our students."

The clinic, which is typically staffed by 20 to 30 "student attorneys," is the largest faculty-supervised environmental law clinic in the country and one of eight legal clinics operated by Tulane Law School. It has received a number of national awards and is an important part of the Tulane environmental law program's current ranking as No. 5 environmental law program in the country by U.S. News and World Report.

"Bob Kuehn is responsible for creating one of the most successful, well-known and respected environmental law clinics in the country," said Tulane President Scott Cowen. "We appreciate his significant contributions to the university and his tireless efforts to advance our understanding of environmental issues locally and nationally."

Houck, who described Kuehn as an ideal combination of litigator, teacher and administrator, said one of Kuehn's greatest assets is his attention to detail. "Bob brought organization and terribly, terribly careful review. Nothing got out of this clinic that wasn't bomb-proof. Everything was absolutely factual, absolutely provable and thoroughly cited in law. Our cases and our students have been squeaky-clean."

Houck said that the law school is searching "every eligible sector" for the clinic's new director, including government practice, private practice and academia. The law school hopes to have the clinic's next director in place by the end of May so that he or she may work through a transition period with Kuehn.

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