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Citizen Coalition Sues Louisiana Supreme Court Over Law Clinic Restrictions

April 16, 1999

For Immediate Release
April 16, 1999

Contact Information:
Ken Weine, 212 998–6736

Citizen Coalition Sues Louisiana Supreme Court Over Law Clinic Restrictions
Federal lawsuit claims revised Rule XX violates the U.S. and Louisiana Constitutions

A diverse group of civil rights and environmental organizations, neighborhood associations, law students, law professors, and a law clinic donor – 21 in total – filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the controversial restrictions imposed on law student clinics by the Louisiana Supreme Court. Filed in New Orleans on April 16, the lawsuit seeks suspension of the restrictions – thereby restoring the ability of law student clinics to provide effective free legal representation to individuals and community organizations unable to afford private counsel.

The restrictions were first imposed in June 1998 when the Louisiana Supreme Court amended Rule XX of the Supreme Court Practice Rules, which govern legal practice by third-year law students. Acting in response to certain business interests and the Governor who are upset at the success of law student clinics – particularly, on several high-profile environmental cases – the Louisiana Supreme Court changed Rule XX in several dramatic respects, including:

    imposing strict income requirements for persons seeking to qualify for free legal aid so as to shut out working class individuals from receiving assistance;

    requiring that 51 percent of the members of community organizations receiving legal help meet the Court’s unfair income requirements (and forcing organizations to collect this information);

    forbidding law clinic professors from offering the clinic’s free legal services to needy individuals and community groups.

In the wake of the local and national outcry the restrictions set off, the Court revised Rule XX in March 1999 – although failing to fix its constitutional infirmities, which include abridging the rights to freedom of speech and equal protection. The revised restrictions went into effect yesterday, April 15.

“Rule XX simply changes the rules of the game so that big business always wins,” said Harold Green, environmental chair of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Louisiana Chapter, which is one of the plaintiffs. “How can our courts function for working people and poor people if they are denied legal representation?” Green added: “We didn’t want to have to sue and tried for nine months to resolve this. But our constitutional rights are being trampled on and we had to use this last resource.”

Law Professor William Quigley, a plaintiff and the director of Loyola University’s law clinic, put the Rule XX amendments in a broader context. “By providing legal help to those with the least resources in our society, clinical programs fill a gaping hole in our judicial system. No law school in the country must abide by rules nearly as restrictive as these. Each year hundreds of students provide literally thousands of hours of help to Louisianans – denying these services runs contrary to the state’s interest.”

The plaintiffs are represented by New Orleans attorney Marjorie R. Esman and David S. Udell of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The Brennan Center is a nonprofit institute devoted to discourse and action on issues of justice central to the jurisprudence of the late Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.

For a copy of the complaint or background information, please contact Ken Weine.