Southern Christian Leadership Conference v. Louisiana Supreme Court
In April 1999, a coalition of community activists, students, and law professors — represented by the Brennan Center for Justice and local counsel — filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the Louisiana Supreme Court over the Court's amendments to Rule XX, the Court's rule governing the practice of law by law clinic students. The federal district court granted the Louisiana Supreme Court's motion to dismiss the lawsuit on July 27, 1999. The Brennan Center Poverty Program appealed. On November 7, 2000, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Court heard oral arguments.
Since the Louisiana Supreme Court explicitly authorized law student clinics to represent indigent community groups in 1989 by amending its student practice rule, Rule XX, several law clinics in Louisiana, including the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (TELC), have provided vital legal assistance to communities without the resources to hire private attorneys. TELC fulfilled its ethical obligation to advocate vigorously on behalf of its clients too well, however. When TELC assisted community groups in a poor, rural community that was already over-burdened by chemical plants to fight off plans by a multi-national corporation to build yet another chemical producing plant in their neighborhood, Louisiana’s governor and business leaders banded together to silence TELC. They hoped that without TELC?s legal assistance, the community would be unable to stop their future development plans -- even if those plans did not comply with federal law.
The Louisiana Supreme Court acceded to the pressure of the governor and business interests and amended Rule XX to include restrictions on law student practice almost identical to those proposed by the business groups. Together, the changes to Rule XX make it almost impossible for law student clinics to represent community groups. Rule XX now bars students in law clinics from representing clients who were contacted initially by law clinic professors, students, or staff, for the purpose of representing the contacted person or organization. Rule XX also prohibits law student clinics from representing any community organization that does not provide burdensome and divisive documentation proving the indigence of its members.