For Immediate Release
April 6, 2000
Scott Schell, 212 998–6318
Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Legal Services Restriction
The United States Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether the U.S. Congress violated the First Amendment by funding Legal Services lawyers to represent the poor and then prohibiting them from making arguments which challenge the validity of welfare laws.
In 1996, Congress imposed numerous restrictions on the nation’s Legal Services Corporation, the organization that provides legal representation to low-income individuals and families for civil legal matters. Congress specifically prohibited LSC-funded lawyers from challenging welfare laws, even though these lawyers routinely represent clients in appeals of decisions denying or terminating welfare benefits. Congress also imposed other restrictions, barring the lawyers from bringing class actions, engaging in legislative advocacy, claiming attorney’s fees, representing certain categories of immigrants and more.
On behalf of a coalition of lawyers, indigent clients, and New York City officeholders, the Brennan Center challenged the restrictions in the case Velazquez v. Legal Services Corporation. On January 7, 1999, the Second Circuit struck down the restriction on challenging welfare laws, holding that Congress had violated the First Amendment by seeking to stifle the speech of citizens who object to welfare laws.
In choosing to decide Velazquez v. Legal Services Corporation, the Supreme Court has taken on the important responsibility of deciding whether the government has the power to control the legal arguments lawyers can make on behalf of their clients when the government is funding the lawyers.
Burt Neuborne, Legal Director of the Brennan Center for Justice says, “We are looking forward to presenting a very strong case to the Supreme Court. This is an opportunity for the Court to decide an important matter concerning the independence of the judiciary – whether government can dictate what lawyers say in court.”
David S. Udell, Director of the Brennan Center’s Poverty Program and a former Legal Services attorney, adds: “Our system promises ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ Velazquez illustrates the inherent unfairness of a two-tier system that applies one set of rules to lawyers for the poor and another to lawyers for clients with money.”
Through pubic education, litigation, and scholarship, the Brennan Center has opposed the federal restrictions on lawyers for the poor since Congress enacted them in 1996.