The Legal Services Corporation Act, which seeks to distribute funds to eligible local organizations in support of legal assistance in noncriminal proceedings or for indigent clients, requires that legal representation funded by LSC money not involve an effort to amend or challenge existing welfare law. The restriction essentially prevents an attorney from claiming that a state statute conflicts with a federal statute or either of them conflicts with the U.S Constitution. The Government and LSC relied on this Court’s precedents to support the validity of the Act.
When the government provides public funds to private entities to convey a governmental message, it may take legitimate and appropriate steps to ensure that its message is not distorted by the grantee.
Congress enacted the Legal Services Corporation Act in 1974, which established the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) as a District of Columbia nonprofit corporation. LSC distributes funds to eligible local organizations in support of legal assistance in noncriminal proceedings or for indigent clients. To satisfy the eligibility, the Act requires that legal representation funded by LSC money not involve an effort to amend or challenge existing welfare law. The restriction essentially prevents an attorney from claiming that a state statute conflicts with a federal statute or either of them conflicts with the U.S Constitution.
Does any of the conditions imposed by Congress on the use of LSC funds violate the First Amendment rights of LSC grantees and their clients?
Yes, Congress may not define the scope of the litigation it funds to exclude certain important theories and ideas. The restriction at issue is designed to insulate the government’s interpretation of the Constitution from judicial challenge. Because private speech is involved here, Congress cannot suppress ideas that they find harmful to the government’s own interest.
The LSC program does not prevent anyone from speaking or force one to change speech. The program is merely a federal subsidy program, not a federal regulatory program. The latter directly restricts speech. A subsidy program, however, does not. Subsidies may indirectly abridge speech, but only if the funding scheme is “manipulated” to have a ‘coercive effect’ on those who do not hold the subsidized position. Such is not the case here.
The LSC program was designed to facilitate private speech, not to promote a governmental message. Congress funded LSC grantees to offer attorneys to represent the interests of indigent clients and to speak on behalf of the clients. The attorney is not the government’s speaker, but his or her private, indigent client’s. Congress has designed LSC program to use legal profession to help assist welfare claimants. The advice or representation to the client cannot be classified as governmental speech.
Further, the requirement that attorneys must not challenge statutory validity is not consistent with the proposition that attorneys should present all the reasonable and well-grounded arguments necessary for resolving their clients’ case. By imposing the restrictions, the Act at issue prohibits speech and expression and seriously threatens severe impairment of the judicial function. Congress cannot take the law away from the Constitution which is its source. Moreover, the restriction, by forcing attorneys to withdraw from a representation, would make clients unlikely to find other counsel, because those clients would have sought the representation of attorneys covered by LSC program, of which its purpose is to help financially difficult persons to afford legal assistance.