Supreme Court agrees to hear Legal Services case
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON The Supreme Court today agreed to decide whether Congress can bar groups funded by the Legal Services Corp. from filing lawsuits that seek to change welfare laws.
The justices said they will hear the Clinton administration's argument that it can lawfully pay for people to go into court and seek benefits under the current welfare law but bar funding for legal challenges to the law.
The justices took no action on a separate lawsuit by legal-aid clients who challenged other restrictions imposed by Congress on the LSC.
The LSC, created in 1974 to provide basic legal services to the poor, distributes millions of dollars in federal money to local legal-aid groups, most of which also receive other public and private funds.
LSC funds cannot be used for defending criminal defendants or cases related to abortion, school desegregation or military desertion.
In 1996, amid efforts to abolish LSC altogether, Congress imposed new restrictions. It barred use of LSC funds for class-action lawsuits, lobbying legislators, providing aid to certain immigrants, seeking lawyers' fees or representing prison inmates.
The law also barred LSC-funded groups from using other funds for those purposes, although they can set up affiliates to use nonfederal money for those activities.
Legal-aid lawyers and clients challenged the new law in 1997, saying it violated speech and associational rights protected by the Constitution's First Amendment.
A federal judge in New York City upheld the law and the rules on affiliate groups, and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals mostly agreed.
But the appeals court said the government could not bar use of LSC funds to seek changes in welfare laws while allowing representation of people's individual welfare cases. That distinction amounted to discrimination on basis of viewpoint, the appeals court said.
In the appeal acted on today, government lawyers said Congress lawfully can provide benefits to people seeking benefits under the current welfare program, while not aiding those who want to challenge the welfare system.
Lawyers for the legal-aid clients said the government was seeking to advance a "favored political viewpoint" while not funding a disfavored viewpoint.
The cases granted review today are Legal Services Corp. v. Velazquez, 99-603, and U.S. v. Velazquez, 99-960.