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Federal Appeals Court Overturns Restriction on Legal Services Lawyers

For Immediate Release
January 8, 1999

Contact Information:
Scott Schell, 212 998-6318

Federal Appeals Court Overturns Restriction on Legal Services Lawyers
Lifting ban on challenging welfare laws, Second Circuit panel rolls back Congress’ restriction.

A federal appeals court panel rejected as unconstitutional a key restriction imposed by Congress on lawyers seeking to challenge welfare laws on behalf of poor clients. Ruling that this restriction constituted “viewpoint discrimination,” the Second Circuit panel held that these lawyers, who provide free legal assistance to the poor in programs funded by the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC), must be permitted to challenge the local, state, and federal welfare rules on behalf of their clients.

The case, Velazquez v. Legal Services Corporation, arose out of a challenge brought by a collection of indigent clients, Legal Services lawyers, and New York City officeholders to a law passed by the GOP-led Congress in 1996. The plaintiffs were represented by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. According to the Center, although the court left many other restrictions intact (including those barring Legal Services lawyers from pursuing class actions, lobbying, claiming attorneys fees, and representing prisoners and certain non-citizens), the decision is an important step, and not the first, toward what the Center hopes to be the eventual repeal of Congress’ law.

David S. Udell, Director of the Brennan Center’s Poverty Program, and a former Legal Services attorney, explained: ”Velazquez reverses one of the most cruel, and ironic, of the restrictions—Congress barred lawyers for the poor from challenging welfare laws at the same time that Congress completely re-wrote the welfare laws in connection with so-called ‘welfare reform.’” Udell was optimistic that the restrictions could be weakened further. “The lawsuit has brought us a long way already,” he stated. “First, it forced LSC to free Legal Services programs to use their own funds to finance work otherwise covered by the restrictions. Now it has enabled Legal Services lawyers to once again challenge welfare laws on behalf of their poor clients.” Expecting an appeal, and possibly Supreme Court review (as this ruling is at odds with a Ninth Circuit decision issued in the spring of 1998), Udell also pledged that the Center would “seek to educate the public of the unfairness of having a two-tier justice scheme, which permits lawyers for most clients to operate under a generous set of rules, but compels lawyers for the poor to operate under a stringent set of rules.”

The Brennan Center is a nonprofit institute devoted to discourse and action on issues of justice central to the jurisprudence of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. The Center is engaged in litigation, public education, and scholarship on poverty issues and campaign finance reform throughout the nation.

Contact the Brennan Center for further comment or for a copy of the Velazquez decision.