Legal Services Corporation v. Valesquez, 531 U.S. 533 (2001)

2012-07-24 12:59:04

In 1974, Congress enacted the Legal Services Corporation Act. This law established the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a federal corporation that was authorized to award funds to local legal aid organizations providing free legal services to the poor in noncriminal legal proceedings. Beginning in 1996 (and every year thereafter), Congress enacted appropriations legislation containing a rule prohibiting the LSC from distributing money to legal aid organizations that were representing clients in proceedings involving statutory or constitutional challenges to state and federal welfare laws. Legal aid organizations were prohibited from bringing challenges even when questions regarding the welfare law’s validity arose after the commencement of the proceeding, or when that portion of the proceeding involving the challenge was being handled by join counsel not affiliated with—or paid by—the legal aid organization. On February 28, 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court announced in a five-to-four decision that the distribution rule was unconstitutional.

The Court distinguished the distribution rule in Velasquez from the ‘‘gag order’’ upheld in Rust v. Sullivan. It concluded that Rust stands for the proposition that the government can place conditions on how government subsidies can be spent when those funds are intended to promote specific programmatic messages. In such contexts, government regulations that impose content and viewpoint-biased restrictions on speech are constitutional. In Velasquez, however, the Court concluded that LSC funds were not intended to articulate a specific government endorsed programmatic message but instead to promote the varied interests and perspectives of indigent private actors involved in legal proceedings. The Court argued that Congress never intended legal aid attorneys receiving LSC funds to become the mouthpieces of the government and to ‘‘stay on message.’’ There simply was no programmatic message at play, and in legal proceedings the government’s viewpoint would be articulated by government lawyers.

The monetary distribution rule also raises separation of powers and federalism concerns by intruding on the judicial powers of state and federal courts. If legal aid organizations representing the poor cannot challenge the statutory and constitutional validity of welfare polices, then judges will be deprived of full and complete information about the nature of welfare policy law suits. The funding limit will corrupt the adversary process by distorting the range of views expressed in judicial forums. This, in turn, will decrease the likelihood that cases will be decided in a legally correct manner, thereby undermining the judiciary’s ability to act consistent with the rule of law. The Court considered it unrealistic to believe that indigents would be able to pursue welfare policy challenges without the free services provided by legal aid organizations receiving LSC funds. Without adequate representation, welfare challenges would less frequently find their way into the judiciary—a result that would, again, frustrate the ability of courts to perform their duties. In short, the likely effect of the LSC distribution rule was that of impermissibly shielding federal policy from full and fair judicial review.


Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Rust v. Sullivan 500 U.S. 173