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Supreme Court Strikes Down Restrictions on Lawyers Representing the Poor In Welfare Benefits Cases

For Immediate Release
February 28, 2001

Supreme Court Strikes down Restrictions on Lawyers Representing the Poor in Welfare Benefits Cases
Justice Kennedy’s Majority Opinion Finds First Amendment Violation in Federal Law Blocking Lawyers Funded by the Legal Services Corporation from Challenging Gov’t. Policy

In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the U.S. Supreme Court today found unconstitutional a federal law enacted in 1996 that bars lawyers funded by the Legal Services Corporation ("LSC") from making any “effort to amend or otherwise challenge existing law” in welfare reform cases. The Court’s decision affirms a lower court ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Today’s Supreme Court decision in Legal Services Corporation v. Velazquez (No. 99-603) is a decisive statement that core First Amendment principles apply fully to federally funded lawyers who represent the poor. The Brennan Center represented Carmen Velazquez, a 56-year-old grandmother whose public benefits were wrongly terminated, and a coalition of legal services attorneys and community groups.

“The Court’s ruling today in Velazquez redeems the promise of equal justice under law,” said Professor Burt Neuborne, the Brennan Center’s Legal Director, who argued the case before the Supreme Court. “By reaffirming First Amendment principles in this context, the Supreme Court is reminding us that lawyers for the poor are real lawyers, possessing the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities for advocacy as any other lawyer. Today’s ruling ensures that lawyers for the poor can do their jobs right, and their clients can expect quality legal representation.”

Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion cites Justice Brennan’s seminal First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan and warns against the dangers of barring speech that disagrees with existing government policy. “The attempted restriction is designed to insulate the Government’s interpretation of the Constitution from judicial challenge,” wrote Justice Kennedy, for the Court. “The Constitution does not permit the Government to confine litigants and their attorneys in this manner. We must be vigilant when Congress imposes rules and conditions which in effect insulate its own laws from legitimate judicial challenge.”

Under today’s ruling, only the restriction on arguments available to LSC-funded lawyers is struck down. The Court praised as “reasoned” the Second Circuit’s ruling that a related provision - which permits LSC-funded lawyers to represent clients in public benefits cases - remains intact. The court has not yet ruled on a petition for certiorari filed by the Brennan Center that challenges a number of other restrictions on LSC-funded lawyers.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law develops and implements a nonpartisan agenda of scholarship, public education, and legal action that promotes equality and human dignity, while safeguarding fundamental freedoms. To reach members of the Brennan Center’s legal team in the Velazquez case, please contact Rebekah Diller at (212) 992-8635.