For Immediate Release
Wednesday, November 2, 2005
Federal Appeals Court Hears Legal Services Oral Argument
New York, NY Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit heard oral argument in Velazquez v. Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a lawsuit brought by three New York nonprofit organizations that provide free legal representation to low-income people. Burt Neuborne of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, appearing for the legal services organizations, urged the court to uphold a lower court ruling that had declared that the government imposed unconstitutional restrictions on the ability of the organizations to use their own non-federal funds.
The restrictions go far beyond anything necessary to serve the governments interests, and amount to a mean-spirited and unconstitutional attempt to deter constitutionally protected representation of low-income people, said Laura Abel, Deputy Director of the Brennan Centers Poverty Program.
At stake is the ability of legal service providers who receive some federal LSC funding to use their non-federal dollars to provide certain important services, such as representing clients in class action lawsuits, claiming court-ordered attorneys fee awards, or providing assistance to certain categories of legal immigrants. Under the challenged rule, programs would have to establish physically separate offices and hire new staff to do such work—even if they pay for those cases with money from non-federal sources. This physical separation requirement imposes a severe burden on the plaintiff legal services programs, which struggle to find funding to meet the needs of their clients.
These unfair restrictions cut off vulnerable clients from the help they need, and tie the hands of legal service providers who should be able to help, says Laura Abel, Deputy Director of the Poverty Program at the Brennan Center. The restrictions go far beyond anything necessary to serve the governments interests, and amount to a mean-spirited and unconstitutional attempt to deter constitutionally protected representation of low-income people.
This lawsuit has broad implications for low-income people in need of legal assistance, and also for a broad range of organizations that operate in partnership with government. While the lower courts ruling applies directly to three New York legal services programs, well over a hundred similar programs throughout the country &emdash; serving millions of low-income families and individuals &emdash; may be able to rely on the courts reasoning to obtain local court rulings that would enable them to spend their nonfederal resources more efficiently and to strengthen their representation of low-income clients. Other categories of non-profits like museums and universities that are financed in part by federal funding also have a stake in the outcome of this appeal.
For more information about efforts to remove civil legal aid funding restrictions imposed by federal, state and local funders, please visit the Brennan Centers Legal Services Funding Restrictions project.