Ninth Circuit finds restrictions on legal aid groups constitutional

[JURIST] A three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] on Monday affirmed [opinion, PDF; press release] a lower court decision which held that Congressional restrictions on organizations receiving federal grants through the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) [official website] do not violate the First Amendment [text]. In a 2-1 ruling, the Ninth Circuit found that limiting these legal aid groups' activities with respect to lobbying, client solicitation, participation in class actions, and attorneys’ fees was not unconstitutional. The suit was originally brought in 2005 by plaintiffs including Legal Aid Services of Oregon and the Oregon Law Center [official websites], claiming that the restrictions, also known as the Program Integrity Rules (PIR) [text, PDF] violated the First Amendment both facially and as applied. The court relied on US Supreme Court [official website] precedent in rejecting the plaintiff's complaint:


Congress did not discriminate against any particular viewpoint or motivating ideology, much less did it aim to suppress "ideas inimical to the Government’s own interest." The Restrictions simply limit specific procedural tools and strategies that grantee attorneys may utilize in the course of carrying out their legal advocacy...Because the Restrictions do not discriminate against a particular viewpoint, they are constitutional under Velazquez III.

In January, the Ninth Circuit rejected [opinion, PDF;press release] a similar challenge to the PIR filed by the State of Oregon. The court held that Oregon lacked standing to sue because the regulations did not harm the state in any way. The PIR was adopted in 1996 as the result of additional restrictions added to the 1974 LSC Act [text], which proscribes LSC grantees from using money for certain activities. Under the amendment, LSC grantees cannot engage in conduct prohibited by PIR, whether the funding is public or private.


 

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