Federal appeals panel upholds Louisiana law-clinic restrictions
By The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS A federal appeals court panel yesterday upheld the Louisiana Supreme Court's restrictions on law school clinics that represent the poor, rejecting claims that the two-year-old revised rules are unconstitutional.
In a 3-0 ruling, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a July 1999 ruling by U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon, which threw out a lawsuit filed by 19 environmental organizations, civic groups, law school students and professors against the state Supreme Court in April 1999.
The law-clinic restrictions, which went into effect in April 1999, amended state Rule XX to restrict clinic representation only to clients making a limited income and to bar law school students from soliciting cases. The lawsuit said such amendments violate First Amendment freedoms of speech and association.
Lawyers for the state's highest court argued to Fallon that law school students have no right to practice law. But an attorney for the plaintiffs countered that the law-clinic restrictions resulted from pressure by angry business and political interests.
In its 31-page ruling, written by Judge Will Garwood of Austin, Texas, the federal appeals panel said, "The LSC (Louisiana Supreme Court) need not have ever allowed unlicensed students to practice law in Louisiana, and indeed did not do so until 1971. The motivation of the LSC ... is irrelevant.
"The LSC's amendment of Rule XX does not, under these circumstances, constitute impermissible viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment."
Garwood was joined in the opinion by Judges Alfred T. Goodwin of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Edith Jones of Houston.
Bill Quigley of Tulane University Law School and other plaintiffs in the case could not be reached immediately to learn whether they would ask for a rehearing or take their lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Louisiana Supreme Court adopted Rule XX in 1971 to allow student lawyers to appear in state courts with supervising attorneys on behalf of indigent persons.
In 1988, at the request of the Tulane and Loyola university law school deans, the rule was amended to let indigent community organizations be represented, as well.
The 1999 amendments the law student practice regulations came in response to complaints by Gov. Mike Foster, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and other business groups angered by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic's aggressive challenge of Shintech Inc.'s proposed $700 million plastics plant in St. James Parish.
Shintech eventually announced plans to switch the location of its proposed plant to a site on the Mississippi River's west bank between Plaquemine and Addis.
The challenged Rule XX amendments say 51% of a community group's members must have annual incomes below specified indigence levels to be represented by a clinic. They also limit a potential client's annual income to no more than $16,480 and a family of four's yearly income no more than $33,400.
The suit claimed the income requirements disqualify working class people from being eligible for assistance from law school clinics.
The amended Rule XX also says that, if a student or an employee of a law clinic tries to solicit business from anyone, the clinic is not allowed to represent that person. The suit claims the amendments violate freedoms of speech and association.
Again, the 5th Circuit panel disagreed.
"Rather than stamping out or suppressing private speech, the LSC's action has reduced the availability of support for such speech, and the LSC the highest judicial body in Louisiana exercising its undisputed power and responsibility has reduced this support by an across-the-board, wholly prospective and viewpoint-neutral general rule," the appeals panel said.
"We are convinced that the new version of Rule XX will not silence any group or individual's speech except to the extent that it ceases to support private speech."
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