That is exactly what some people say happened in Louisiana, where a determined band of law students took on some of the biggest businesses in the state only to learn a lesson about judges and justice not found in any law book. Dan Rather reports for 60 Minutes II.
In much of Louisiana, the sun sets not over natural wonders but unnatural ones like the chemical corridor residents call Cancer Alley.
Take a short trip from New Orleans and see what the residents of Convent can often hear and smell: Nine chemical plants within a four-mile radius producing 658 times more toxic air pollution than the U.S. average, according to EPA statistics. Spend a half day here and be exposed to as much toxic pollution as the average American breathes in a year.
And who lives nearest to these plants? Most are African-Americans and of low income, people like Gloria Roberts and Amelda West.
West says she felt as if "everybody was coming over here, dumping their waste on us, poison(ing) our air and polluting our water."
A Japanese company, Shintech, announced plans to build yet another huge chemical plant in a sugar cane field.
To Shintech and chemical industry spokesman Dan Borne, the plant would benefit the community: "There would have been pollution impact of course, but the majority of the air emissions would have been as benign as methanol," Borne says. "So you are not talking about a huge environmental burden on this area. You are talking about trading off what is a very, very minor environmental burden with a very large economic plus for the area."
That was not how the neighbors saw it. "I saw pollution; I saw more deaths from cancer," Roberts says. "And I saw not jobs for our people here."
The Shintech job openings would be highly technical, so the poorly educated locals would be left out, she says.
Each side had conflicting evidence about whether the plant would help or harm the community. These are the kinds of issues a court decides in a legal battle. But in this fight, one side had unlimited resources while the other couldn't afford to hire even one lawyer.
So the residents who did not want the new plant turned - not to lawyers - but to law students at the environmental law clinic at Tulane University.
"We decided that one of our obligations as lawyers is to try to provide legal assistance to those who can't afford it," says Professor Bob Kuehn, who was the clinic's director. "These were serious issues that should be heard. And so we decided we'd help them."
Law clinics give students some real life experience and poor people a shot at justice.
"The students were marvelous," West says. "We had one woman, a little young woman I'll never forget," she says, referring to Janine Castorina.
Today Castorina is a lawyer for the U.S. Navy. Two years ago she was pretty much alone and facing a team of Shintech lawyers determined to build the plant. The experience reminded her of a David vs. Goliath rematch. Walking in there, "I said, 'Oh, my God, there's 100 of them,'" Castorina says.
Yet she felt she was making a difference, "because I was helping somebody who couldn't help themselves," she recalls.
Fighting against Castorina and her clinic wasn't just Shintech but Louisiana Governor Mike Foster. For his part, Foster says, "I only find it very frustrating when we try to bring in an industry in here, bring jobs to people that need the jobs, that a group of people in the name of training students can use the courts ad nauseam, forever it seems, to block that development."
Foster had worked hard to lure Shintech with $130 million of incentives. He did not appreciate students getting in his way. He called them vigilantes and outlaws.
Rather than fight a prolonged legal struggle, however, the company ended up moving its plant elsewhere. But while the clinic had won the battle, the students then learned a lesson in political warfare.
The governor, along with some of the state's biggest businesses and law firms, first attacked Tulane, threatening to take away tax breaks and urging alumni to stop giving money. They told law students they would not be hired unless the clinic was cut back.
Kuehn explains: "Tulane was the one that said, 'We're not backing down. This is an issue that we believe is important. We believe it's an issue of academic freedom. We believe it's an issue of people having a right to be heard.'"
So a new attack was launched, using a weapon that some would consider unthinkabe: putting pressure on state Supreme Court judges to curtail the clinics.
The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the New Orleans Business Council and the chamber sent letters to the court urging justices to act on their behalf. The letters weren't subtle. Said the chamber: The individual faculty and students' legal views are in direct conflict with business positions.
The court ordered investigations of law school clinics to look for wrongdoing but found none. Nevertheless, in June 1998, the court voted to impose severe restrictions, as in no other state, requiring that clinics represent only clients who earn below a certain income and who are willing to open up their books to prove their poverty.
Roberts and West say they can no longer be represented: "They're going to go and roll over us, just like the Mississippi River," says Roberts.
These same income restrictions may make Barrett Landry of southwest Louisiana ineligible. Barrett is an automobile mechanic; his wife is a secretary. After raising three children on what was once a quiet country road, a new industrial neighbor moved in. The Landrys allege environmental laws are being broken.
"The biggest problem that I personally have with it is the amount of noise," Barrett Landry says. They can document the noise. But they can't get the clinic to help: "They simply made it to where they could only represent the poorest of the poor," Landry says.
Why did the Supreme Court justices make it harder for people like the Landrys to put up a fight? The Landrys say the answer is money, as the justices depend for re-election upon money from chemical companies and other rich contributors.
In Louisiana, as in most other states, judges are not appointed based on ability but elected. And like politicians, judges need money to run campaign ads.
Nationwide, contributions to judicial races are skyrocketing. Special interests are increasingly aware that a judge's decision is often more valuable tan a politician's vote. In Louisiana, two Supreme Court justices lost their seats in 1996 to candidates backed by oil and chemical industry money.
In 1998 the same industry plus its business allies and the governor clamored for the court to curtail the clinic. The chief justice, Pascal Calogero, was seeking re-election.
He was opposed by Chuck Cusimano, the industry favorite, who was collecting a war chest of $650,000 and running commercials.
In June, as the race was heating up, Chief Justice Calogero voted with seven of eight other justices to impose restrictions on the clinic.
Soon afterward, he received in excess of $40,000 from more than 40 prominent businesses and their lawyers. Calogero declined to be interviewed. But a friend, speaking up for him, told 60 Minutes II that his vote was based on the merits of the case, not the money, that his opponent got the lion's share of business contributions and there's not even an appearance of any conflict of interest.
Critics like Kuehn disagree: "I think that we have in Louisiana turned our judges into politicians. And made them, unfortunately at times, care more about what might help them get elected, or get re-elected, than about their duty to provide fair and impartial justice."
"Judges anywhere...tend to give in to the points of view and interest of those to whom they owe their election," Kuehn says.
In the election, Chief Justice Calogero won after raising about $900,000, including small donations from Shintech lawyers and the chairman of the chamber. Chemical industry spokesman Borne says justice was served, not bought.
"If you're going to argue that money buys judicial court decisions, then you have to argue that money buys a governor, that money buys a legislature," says Borne. "I'm...not of that belief."
If it isn't buying influence, then why make these huge contributions?
"It's the system - that we operate under," Borne declares. "It is not buying judges. It is not buying influence. It's bringing a point of view to the table."
Some Americans believe that the courts should be immune from this type of thing, that this branch should not be tainted with even the perception that money can influence their decisions.
The business end in the case of the clinic seems to have gotten plenty of justice. In the 18 months before the restrictions took effect, the Tulane environmental law clinic took on 31 new Louisiana cases. In the 18 months after, and to this day, the clinic has taken on just one.
"It feels like you had your legs shot out from underneath you because you absolutely have no way of getting legal representation," says Barrett Landry. "You had very little to begin with already, and now we have simply access to none whatsoever."
Last summer, a federal district court upheld the restrictions against the clinic. The judge said that in Louisiana, where state judes are elected, one cannot claim complete surprise when political pressure somehow manifests itself within the judiciary. That decision is now on appeal.