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Q & A on Southern Christian Leadership Conference v. Louisiana Supreme Court

Published: November 7, 2000

Southern Christian Leadership Conference
v. Louisiana Supreme Court
– November 7, 2000

In April 1999, a coalition of community activists, students, and law professors – represented by the Brennan Center for Justice and local counsel – filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the Louisiana Supreme Court over the Court’s amendments to Rule XX, the Court’s rule governing the practice of law by law clinic students. The federal district court granted the Louisiana Supreme Court’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit on July 27, 1999. The Brennan Center Poverty Program appealed. On November 7, 2000, the United States Court of Appeals fo the Fifth Circuit Court heard oral arguments.

Q: What is the problem?

A: Since the Louisiana Supreme Court explicitly authorized law student clinics to represent indigent community groups in 1989 by amending its student practice rule, Rule XX, several law clinics in Louisiana, including the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (TELC), have provided vital legal assistance to communities without the resources to hire private attorneys. TELC fulfilled its ethical obligation to advocate vigorously on behalf of its clients too well, however. When TELC assisted community groups in a poor, rural community that was already over-burdened by chemical plants to fight off plans by a multi-national corporation to build yet another chemical producing plant in their neighborhood, Louisiana?s governor and business leaders banded together to silence TELC. They hoped that without TELC?s legal assistance, the community would be unable to stop their future development plans—even if those plans did not comply with federal law.

The Louisiana Supreme Court acceded to the pressure of the governor and business interests and amended Rule XX to include restrictions on law student practice almost identical to those proposed by the business groups. Together, the changes to Rule XX make it almost impossible for law student clinics to represent community groups. Rule XX now bars students in law clinics from representing clients who were contacted initially by law clinic professors, students, or staff, for the purpose of representing the contacted person or organization. Rule XX also prohibits law student clinics from representing any community organization that does not provide burdensome and divisive documentation proving the indigence of its members.

Q: Why is the case important?

A: This case challenges the constitutionality of government actions calculated to retaliate against advocates of unpopular causes. By prohibiting law student clinics from representing most community organizations, the Louisiana Supreme Court has effectively cut off the ability of these groups to take part in the judicial process. Without access to the courts, community organizations will be left unable to protect their legal rights and constitutional liberties.

Q: Who are the parties?

A: The plaintiffs are community groups, law students and student groups, and law professors. They are:
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Louisiana Chapter
St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment
Calcasieu League
Civil Action For Environmental Action Now
Holy Cross Neighborhood Association
Fishermen’s And Concerned Citizens’
Association of Plaquemines Parish;
St. Thomas Residents Council;
Louisiana Environmental Action Network
Louisiana Association of Community
Organizations For Reform Now
North Baton Rouge Environmental Association
Louisiana Communities United
Robert Kuehn
Christopher Gobert
Elizabeth E. Teel
Jane Johnson
William P. Quigley
Tulane Environmental Law Society
Tulane University Graduate and Professional Student Association
Inga Haagenson Causey
Carolyn Delizia
Dana Hanaman

The defendant is the Louisiana Supreme Court. Many groups have also weighed in with “friend of the court” briefs in the Court of Appeals to support the plaintiffs, including the Deans of Tulane and Loyola Law Schools, the American Association of University Professors, the Association of American Law Schools, and the Louisiana chapters of the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Appleseed.

Q: What are the legal arguments?

A: The legal arguments focus on the federal district court judge’s observation that “one cannot claim complete surprise” that the elected justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court buckled under political pressure from powerful interest groups. On appeal, the plaintiffs continue to emphasize that, even in the face of overwhelming political pressure, the U.S. Constitution obligates the Louisiana Supreme Court to respect the First Amendment rights of Louisiana?s citizens and prohibits the Court from retaliating against advocates who promote a point of view that arouses the disfavor of the business community. The plaintiffs also argue that the Louisiana Supreme Court?s prohibition against outreach by professors and students working through law student clinics directly violates several long-established precedents of the U.S. Supreme Court that protect outreach as a vital component of the constitutional right to association.

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